They say playing badly and winning is the sign of a title-winning side. If that’s true, then lump on United for the title next season, because this victory was almost entirely unconvincing.
The home side needed two penalties, a freakishly good David de Gea save, and some mediocre officiating to wrest three points from a spirited West Ham. While a few players were rested with one eye on Barcelona, this was still a disjointed, messy performance that a better team would have punished.
Of course, the real headline of the teamsheets was the return of Marcos Rojo, and the great man did not disappoint. Just a couple of minutes had passed when he made his first contribution of note: a shot.
From approximately 40 yards.
Which not only failed to trouble the goalkeeper, but actually instigated a West Ham attack.
You can’t teach that. Happily Fred got back in time to kill the break, but the pattern of the first half was established there and then. Time and again United would go forward, faff around, and then West Ham, imaginative and enterprising, would break into worrying amounts of space.
Still, if United weren’t making much happen, the officials were having an extremely creative day. With United’s defence largely elsewhere, Javier Hernandez nodded the ball down for Felipe Anderson, who clipped the ball home, only for the linesman to raise his flag. Offside. But he wasn’t.
Then the referee awarded United an extremely generous penalty. After some scrappy build-up down United’s left, Juan Mata and Robert Snodgrass came together on the edge of West Ham’s box, and the Spaniard went down.
Could have been a foul. Could have just been basic physics, given that Snodgrass is a fairly large man and Mata is an adorable wood-gnome that lives in a mushroom and commutes to Old Trafford in a boat made from an acorn cup. Also it might not have been in the box at all. But apart from that ...
Anyway, Pogba scored. In the VAR universe, United went one down after nine minutes; in this reality, United were one up after 19.
Otherwise it was a bit of a flat first half. Fred was decent, and Romelu Lukaku worked hard if not to any great effect, but United looked slow and sleepy. Mata picked up a booking for hacking down Mark Noble. Yes, those names are the right way around.
West Ham’s goal came four minutes into the second half, just reward for the better team. David de Gea rolled the ball into midfield, but it trundled past a bemused looking Pogba and into West Ham’s possession. Moments later, Manuel Lanzini sent a cross from one side of the box to the other, and Felipe Anderson arrived to poke it home.
And if Marcos Rojo knew that the Brazilian was unmarked behind him, he certainly did a very good impression of a man who didn’t know anything.
In response, Marcus Rashford came on for Mata, and it didn’t take him long to find space down the right of the box and draw a smart save from Lukas Fabianski. A couple of minutes later, it took some clever defending from Pablo Zabaleta to disrupt the youngster as he rose for a dangerous header. United, finally, were starting to look a bit like the home team.
Marcos Rojo’s second shot came on 66 minutes. It was a huge improvement, in that it was on target and it didn’t send the opposition galloping down the other end. But for one delicious second minute it looked he might end up kicking the referee into the Stretford End, so ultimately it was still a bit disappointing.
Four minutes later he got nutmegged by Grady Diangana.
With a little over 15 minutes to go, Solskjaer shuffled the Alex Ferguson Oblique Strategies deck, pulled out “Bring On A Kid Up Front”, and sent Mason Greenwood out to join in the fun. Andreas Pereira went with him, eyebrows twinkling.
But it was two West Ham substitutes that decided the game. First Michail Antonio came close, twice, to wrapping things up for the visitors. After holding off Fred in midfield he smacked the ball past De Gea, but into the bar. Then, with the goalframe still quivering, he rose at the far post and nodded the ball down towards the corner. It took every inch of lanky Spaniard to deny him.
Ryan Fredericks’ impact came at the other end. With West Ham overcommitted, a simple dummy on the defensive line sent Anthony Martial trotting through on goal. After an indifferent game, he was far from guaranteed to score, but luckily for United, the hapless Fredericks came crashing in from the side. Pogba scored again.
United had ten minutes plus change to survive, and thanks to some bleeding from Phil Jones — more Pat Butcher than Terry — there was plenty of change. But West Ham couldn’t find a way past De Gea, and United picked up three precious points to move back above Arsenal into fifth.
Now, let’s never speak of this again.