Manchester United picked up their 13th win of the season with a performance that was comfortable for 70 minutes, then a chaotic slog for the final 20 or so. Goals from Romelu Lukaku — his 15th of the season — and Jesse Lingard were enough to secure the three points, even though West Brom threatened to ruin Jose Mourinho’s evening.
United got off to a slow start, dominating possession but failing to test Ben Foster in the West Brom goal. And then, after 26 minutes, they were ahead, and Foster had no chance. Marcus Rashford squared up his marker and then fired a cross into the box, and Lukaku, despite tight attentions from the defence, was able to glance a header into the far corner.
Control, for United, followed immediately, and a second goal just ten minutes later. Jesse Lingard will take the credit, as his shot from outside the box was probably on target, but he should be splitting his goal bonus with Ahmed Hegazi; had the Egyptian defender not stuck his foot out and ballooned the ball over his keeper, Foster would have had a straightforward save.
West Brom freshened things up at half-time, bringing on 238-year-old Gareth Barry and pushing Oliver Burke up front. But it took an off-the-ball incident to wake the game up a little: Rashford, convinced that Hegazi had swung an elbow out, had firm words with the defender and was booked for his trouble. Moments later, Antonio Valencia had to hook a wicked cross clear from within his own six-yard box.
The game had looked set to slip past in the way that only dead football matches can: an unmemorable mishmash of mishit crosses, misplaced passes, and chances that flickered but never fully burst to life. But like an unwanted bubble of digestive gas, United’s defensive frailties rose up from nowhere. A West Brom corner flew across the six-yard box, then bobbled back into the middle, eventually landing at Barry’s feet. He poked it home, and the game lurched back to life.
With ten minutes left in the game, United floundered. They dropped deep, they stood off tackles, and they began to give the ball away. Anthony Martial came on for Rashford — a switch planned before the goal — but ending up spending more time on the edge of his own box than his opponent’s. Jay Rodriguez flashed a header past David de Gea’s post, Marcos Rojo nearly sliced into his own net, and Scott McTominay was introduced for United: a child on to remind the adults how it was done.
In the end, United just about held out, though it would be a stretch to call it comfortable. Worrying, too, was the sight of Valencia limping from the field; with a busy schedule coming up, United can ill afford to lose one of their more reliable squad members. The win restored United’s three point lead in second place, and leaves them on 41 points, their best return after 18 games since 2012-13. They won the league that season, Alex Ferguson’s last. They don’t look much like repeating the trick this time around.