After the midweek thriller that was the match against Newcastle, and the furore that accompanied it thereafter, Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson took time away from the issue and controversial comments to host West Brom at home, at the half way point of the season.
Prior to kick off, there had been some concerns that the match may not even go ahead. Due to heavy rainfall, the pitch had taken on a lot of water and there were thoughts that it may be unplayable. However, after two inspections, the match was given the all clear to go ahead on Saturday afternoon.
With that in mind, Sir Alex kept David De Gea in goal, with Vidic and Evans in front of him. Chris Smalling and Patrice Evra were the right and left backs. In midfield, Tom Cleverley and Michael Carrick were paired up, with Shinji Kagawa in front of them on his return from injury. Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young were on the wings. Danny Welbeck was the lone striker up front.
The visitors started the quicker, but it was United who would take an early lead, within 10 minutes, with a poor clearance allowing Young and Kagawa to play a one-two, with Young getting a shot away, only for the ball to deflect in off McAuley to give the home side a 1-0 lead due to an own goal.
From there, United began to dominate possession, taking up to 79% of possession in the next period of play, as they looked to take control of the game, Kagawa involved in much of the passing play.
As the half progressed, West Brom started to push forward themselves, but United nearly doubled their lead on the break, as Valencia delivered a ball that met Young on the half-volley, only for his effort to be tipped brilliantly by Ben Foster.
And so it remained until half time, 1-0 to the visitors, with all still to play for.
The second half was a story of West Brom looking to find their way back into the game, building up play in their search for an equaliser. It was enough for Sir Alex to call on Robin Van Persie, replacing Kagawa, who was bound to be short of match fitness. West Brom brought on Lukaku.
The visitors came close to drawing level, with McAuley heading against the crossbar. Despite the increased pressure though, David De Gea was not to be tested too often as the game began to draw to a close. Indeed, as injury time loomed, the score remained at 1-0, until the first minute of added time, when Van Persie took the ball at the corner of the area before unleashing a stunning curling effort to beat Foster, and double United’s lead, securing the 3 points.
With that, here are five things that may be taken from the game.
1) Kagawa impressed on his return
After a number of weeks out with an injury, Shinji Kagawa returned to the starting line up on Saturday, to remind fans what they had been missing. The Japanese midfielder was at the heart of much of United’s play, with a 97% pass completion rate, his passing was slick and he showed good energy as United dominated much of the first half.
Of course, with time away from playing, it was no surprise to see him tire as the second half progressed, before he was withdrawn for Van Persie, but his return will be seen as a welcome one.
2) Does Kagawa pose a threat to Rooney?
With Kagawa playing a more attacking role as a midfielder, and with Rooney’s role dropping deeper, one must wonder whether or not the two clash in position.
It is something that some have noted in recent weeks, possibly due to the looming transfer window looking to make a sensational headline. However, one must admit there could be an element of logic to the thinking. On this occasion, with only Welbeck in front of him, Kagawa shone and was instrumental in United’s attack. One would hope that Rooney, Van Persie and Kagawa could combine to form a feared trio.
3) A welcome clean sheet
After all the worries and questions about United’s defensive frailties, and their Kevin Keegan football philosophy this season, it was a welcome sight to see the back line hold steady and maintain a clean sheet. In fact, David De Gea was rarely troubled in the 2-0 victory. One aspect that one could put it down to, is Vidic asserting himself at the heart of the back four. The defender started and played his part in keeping the visitors at bay. Perhaps he is providing an authoritative voice that has been missing lately. Regardless, United need to go on a solid run of games without conceding, to boost confidence and build solidity.
It has been repeated many times, but I believe it is imperative to United’s title aspirations.
4) Van Persie – a constant danger
With United looking a little flat at times in the second half, perhaps due to the heavy nature of the pitch, Sir Alex looked to Van Persie and Paul Scholes to calm them down.
The Dutchman came on, and with minutes remaining, he took the ball and curled an effort to double his side’s lead. It was a superb effort, and a reminder that in him, you have a player who can provide the big moments even on a quiet day. He is a constant threat and can produce at any time the opportunity presents itself.
5) A wing issue
When it was announced that Nani would be out for 4-5 weeks with an injury that happened to coincide with the transfer window, some took it to mean we may have seen the last of the Portuguese winger at Old Trafford, with reports of unrest and problems over a new contract.
There is, of course, also a possibility that the injury was genuine, and in truth, it would be useful to call on him when he gets fit again, if only to give Valencia a break on the right.
The issue is, that Valencia continues to look short of confidence. It could be said that on Saturday, the pitch was heavy and the pace of the game was not at the level needed to utilise the Ecuadorian winger. However, he has not looked the player he can be in recent weeks, and one wonders if he needs a couple of games away to help with this, and give Nani more chances out on the right. Another possibility would be to use Rafael there for the time being, given his penchant for going forward and joining the attack.