Manchester United recorded a comfortable 2-0 over West Bromwich Albion and extended their unbeaten run to ten matches in all competitions.
Jose Mourinho made three changes from the side that beat Crystal Palace in midweek. Antonio Valencia returned at right-back, Matteo Darmian replaced Daley Blind at left-back and Jesse Lingard was recalled to the starting XI in place of Juan Mata. The Spaniard dropped to the bench alongside Anthony Martial, who missed Wednesday’s win over Palace.
The inclusion of Jesse Lingard surprised many United fans before kick-off and the reaction on social media was not particularly in favour of the England international’s selection. He silenced his critics with a vital contribution inside five minutes, producing an excellent run and cross for Ibrahimovic to score with his head and give United the lead.
In just a matter of minutes, Lingard had demonstrated exactly why he was in the team. With Henrikh Mkhitaryan out injured, Manchester United lacked speed in transition and needed the pace and penetration that Lingard can offer, with or without the ball. His run in behind Alan Nyom, coupled with the first-time cross for Ibrahimovic, was exactly the kind of counter-attacking quality that United have missed over the last few seasons. Pace, width and clinical finishing. A throwback to the Sir Alex Ferguson era.
Lingard’s performance was more than just that one moment in the fifth minute and his energy and movement off the ball was crucial to United’s victory. With the exception of Mkhitaryan, Lingard is the only attacking player in the United squad that offers this level of intensity and variation in his movement off the ball. He closes down defenders, runs in behind, creates space for others with his movement and raises the tempo of the United attacking phase.
Lingard works in short bursts. Starting on the right-hand side, he is free to move across the pitch and his willingness to move in off the flank encouraged similar positional rotation from his teammates. United were very fluid in their attacking movements against West Brom and were in complete control of the game due to their use of possession. Aside from his assist, Lingard completed 91% of his passes and was positive with his use of the ball throughout, but it was his work rate and quality without the ball that stood out the most.
For West Brom, this evening’s contest rather passed them by. Their biggest strength this season has been their ability to supply Salomon Rondon and create advantages for themselves in the final third from the wide positions. In the first half particularly, West Brom played with a very narrow shape in attacking areas, so the creative trio of Chris Brunt, Nacer Chadli and Matt Phillips rarely had possession in wide areas. They managed just four crosses between them in that first 45 minutes. While they improved in the second half and attempted a further seven crosses, it simply wasn’t enough to service a striker who, until today at least, was bang in form.
Rondon was so isolated against Manchester United, he was only involved in attacking moments inside the opposition penalty area three times. Most of his best work was up against Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo but unfortunately for Albion, Rondon often came away second best in those particular battles. He completed just 56% of his passes and had only two attempts on goal in the game. During the second half, his frustration boiled over in a scrap with Rojo, who was on the receiving end of a slap from the Venezuelan.
West Brom’s blunt and abject attacking display only serves to highlight the level of control that United were able to exert from start to finish. They were never in danger of conceding an equaliser or throwing away a comfortable lead, thanks in part to the calming influence of Michael Carrick.
Although it is discussed often, Carrick’s influence on this team can often be understated. He is always an option for United players in possession of the ball, always looks to play the ball forward and very rarely gives the ball away. It is rare to find a player so positive in possession of the ball who is also so accurate and consistent in his application. The graphic above shows exactly how dominant Carrick was in the central areas this evening, but also how effective. The general trend of his passes shows how forward-thinking he was when he had the ball at his feet, driving United forward at every opportunity. His ability to play through the lines was typified by his pass in the build-up to Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s second goal, a wonderfully weighted pass that created the space and time for Wayne Rooney to drive at the heart of the Albion defence and supply Zlatan Ibrahimovic for his 16th goal of the season.
Manchester United have now won three league matches on the spin and sit three points off Manchester City in fourth place. They are creating momentum for themselves at just the right time and Mourinho is starting to understand the combinations that make up his best team. Given the right set of results and the right conditions in which to work, Mourinho and his men can make one last title tilt and drive themselves up the league table. With Chelsea in unbelievable form, it would be a tough ask, but stranger things have happened.