After the delirium of last week’s derby victory, Manchester United served up a stinking reminder that they are, at times, a really bad football team. This one-nil defeat to West Bromwich Albion was a miserable performance in its own right, made all the more galling by the fact that as a result, Manchester City have been confirmed as Premier League champions.
The first half was a sleepy affair, in keeping with the fact that both clubs’ league seasons are petering out. Romelu Lukaku had United’s best sights of goal, but he was foiled twice, once by the onrushing face of Ben Foster and once by his own heavy touch. Ander Herrera could have had a penalty, but the referee wasn’t convinced.
Other than that, it was stodgy stuff. Some of the interplay between Alexis Sanchez and Juan Mata was promising, but with everybody looking to drift inside, the middle of the field was getting very congested. West Brom were content to let United try — and fail — to thread precise passes through tiny gaps. And the visitors almost nicked a lead after 11 minutes, but David de Gea got down smartly to save from Jake Livermore.
On the plus side, Paul Pogba got booked for an attempted volleyball spike. So it wasn’t a complete waste of everybody’s time.
Second verse, same as the first. The introductions of first Jesse Lingard (for Ander Herrera) and then Anthony Martial (for Pogba, possibly due to that booking) promised more attacking intent, but United continued to work their way up blind alleys and down dead ends. It took them 21 minutes of the second half to even muster a shot on target: Romelu Lukaku putting his whole head on a Nemanja Matic cross and drawing an excellent save from Ben Foster.
And then West Brom, the worst team in the league, went and scored. Jay Rodriguez led a rare break upfield and won a corner. It was sent in deep, and some combination of Craig Dawson and Nemanja Matic sent the ball back across the penalty area where Rodriguez came sliding in, unmarked and apparently unnoticed, to nod home.
Teetering on the edge of humiliation at both the micro level (the game) and the macro (the league), United tried to wake up. But their general inability to create decent chances continued: Foster did a lot of clapping, and some strenuous pointing, but barely had a save to make. United ended the game playing five up front, none of them able to conjure anything.
Perhaps this was an appropriate ending to the whole business. Last week, United reminded everybody that some of their players are excellent and can do wonderful things. This week, they’ve demonstrated that they’re a million miles away from the kind of cohesion and basic competence that makes good players into a good team. All eyes on the FA Cup.