Manchester United needed two Paul Pogba penalties to scrape home to a 2-1 win over desperately unlucky West Ham.
Old Trafford’s visitors fell behind in the first half when Robert Snodgrass clumsily felled Juan Mata – Pogba stepped up and swept United into a lead they barely deserved.
After the break the Hammers stepped things up and levelled through Felipe Anderson. After that they could easily have won it with Michail Antonio hammering the crossbar and David De Gea making a gravity-defying save from the same player’s header.
In the end, Ryan Fredericks’ brainless foul on Anthony Martial allowed Pogba the opportunity to drag United out of the fire, and he smashed in his second effort from 12 yards.
UNITED IN END OF SEASON MODE
At the beginning of another pivotal week, those basking in the Manchester sunshine watching this game may have been forgiven for thinking it was May, instead of April.
United have a mammoth European night to come on Tuesday in Barcelona and remain outsiders of the four teams looking to secure a top-four finish. And yet here they were, and have been in recent weeks, playing with the care-free attitude of a team who have nothing left to play for this season.
But it is one that is very much still alive, or it should be. So why are a team in the midst of their most critical phase playing so casually?
The ponderous Pogba is a large part of the problem as all United’s play goes through him – while Mata and Romelu Lukaku are hardly conduits to the speedy style United fans crave.
After an encouraging yet ultimately fruitless result in midweek against Barca, United were desperately in need here of a performance full of whim and vigour – to fire their Champions League chase back up, for both this season and next.
And yet, the visitors enjoyed 56 per cent of possession in the first half and will leave Old Trafford wondering how on earth they contrived to lose.
This was not a result or performance to fuel the imagination ahead of their clash in Catalonia.
Speaking of speed…
RASHFORD GETS A RUSH ON
As if to point out the blindingly obvious tentative and terse style of United’s play, the home side actually looked at their best when the pace and ingenuity of Marcus Rashford was introduced off the bench.
That came in the 55th minute and was not a substitute Solskjaer would have wanted to make if at all possible, with Tuesday in mind. The Wythenshawe wonderboy has played a lot of football under the Norwegian and he would surely have preferred to keep him wrapped up and ready to unleash on Barca.
But, by sticking him on the bench, Solskjaer was possibly also mindful of the fact he might need an injection of speed to spring United into life – and so it proved.
Rashford brought the Stretford End out of its slumber minutes after being introduced when he latched onto Chris Smalling’s through ball and unleashed a stinging shot that was saved superbly by Lukasz Fabianski – United’s clearest chance of the game.
He then sent a header over and, together with Mason Greenwood, helped United stretch West Ham at the back and regain some semblance of control after they equalised and threatened to take more than a point back to east London.
With Lukaku off and Martial moving centrally, it seemed to instantly reinvigorate United’s forward play.
It’s the way forward for midweek. United won’t get away with such a static start at the Camp Nou.
HAMMERS CAN NAIL DOWN SEVENTH
On this showing, as well as sporadic evidence throughout the season, there’s no reason why West Ham should not be in the hunt for seventh place.
In fact, they have legitimate reason to be the chasing pack’s No1 team. But their squad – both talented and top-heavy with luxury players – is the reason why they should, and also shouldn’t, be there.
Marko Arnautovic, Manuel Lanzini, Samir Nasri and Felipe Anderson are a terrific quartet of weaponry to have in your armoury, and yet trying to fit them all in the starting XI has been a conundrum Manuel Pellegrini has wrestled with throughout the campaign, and often to the detriment of the rest of his many unheralded stars.
Declan Rice – excellent at Old Trafford – has come from nowhere to establish himself as one of the finds of the season, Robert Snodgrass has reinvigorated his career at the London Stadium, while Pablo Zabaleta and Mark Noble continue to defy the critics and Father Time.
Pellegrini also wrestled with whether to keep or sell Arnautovic in January – the effervescent Austrian is as maddening as he is marvellous. He seemed happy to stay, much to the delight of the fans, and yet his performances since the turn of the year have clearly dipped.
He was left out of the squad here due to apparent illness. Perhaps the best thing was to allow him to leave after all.
Judging by the grit and guile on show at Old Trafford, inflated egos are no longer a luxury West Ham can afford to carry.
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A pair of penalties from Paul Pogba, one won by Juan Mata and the other by Anthony Martial secured all three points for the Reds at Old Trafford.
Felipe Anderson had levelled proceedings at 1-1 in the 49th minute to out the hosts under pressure before Michail Antonio hit the crossbar.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side though took the lead from the spot with ten minutes to play and held on for the victory.
Here, we rate the performances of United’s players.
STARTING XI (4-2-3-1)
David De Gea 6 – Used his feet well once in the first half. Poor throw out led to the equaliser. Should’ve done better with his distribution. World class save to deny Antonio.
Diogo Dalot 6 – Got forward often enough but his delivery lacked quality. Struggled to keep track of Anderson when he drifted in.
Chris Smalling 6 – Probably played the best pass of the game from which Rashford forced a great save from Fabianski. Decent display at the back.
Phil Jones 5 – An embattled performance from the defender but makes things look far more labourious than they should be.
Marcos Rojo 2 – Always a liability in defence. Played out of position and it’s no surprise that he was often, well, out of position. Looked over his shoulder three times but still didn’t pick up Anderson at the far post for the goal. Bizarre.
Fred 5 – Showed good energy and impressed at times, driving from midfield. However, tried to do too much at times and still hasn’t come to terms with the physicality of the Premier League. Easily brushed off the ball on a couple of occasions.
Paul Pogba 6 – Scored both penalties but was ponderous in possession and surrendered it too easily too many times.
Jesse Lingard 4 – Ran his socks off as always but a United player needs to offer more than that. Average at best.
Juan Mata 3 – Won the penalty but he’s looked past his best years for some time and this was further evidence. Off the pace and should’ve been off the pitch sooner than the 56th minute.
Anthony Martial 5 – Some good moments mixed in with several frustrating ones. Undoubted talent but showed again his lack of poise. Did well to win the second penalty.
Romelu Lukaku 4 – Ran the channels reasonably well in the first half before he simply ran out of ideas. Far too many aimless crosses confirmed that.
Marcus Rashford 7 (56′) – Made an instant impact off the bench, forcing a good save from Fabianski, heading over the bar and then playing the flick that sent Martial through on goal.
Mason Greenwood N/A (75′) – Didn’t have enough time to make an impact on the right wing.
Andreas Pereira N/A (75′) – Came on at right-back to bomb forward and deliver crosses but soon had to defend United’s lead.
The likely departure of Ander Herrera from Manchester United this summer has sent the club’s fans into a tizzy, eliciting reactions all across the spectrum.
Plenty are lamenting losing someone who clearly loves the club, but an equal number of fans are either happy to thank him for his services and send him on his way or accusing him of a lack of loyalty.
As a player, Herrera is one who wears his heart on his sleeve. That particular quality, along with his own talent, had many installing him as United’s next captain, ahead of more gifted players like Paul Pogba, while the way Herrera connects with supporters made him out to be someone who truly gets what it means to play for the club.
He, along with fellow Spaniards Juan Mata and David De Gea, have also professed their love for the city, and seeing them strolling around Manchester has become a common sight for fans.
And then came the last international break, and revelations that Herrera, who is out of contract this summer, is in the middle of negotiating terms with Paris Saint-Germain.
The Ligue 1 giants have reportedly offered to more than double his wages, with a new deal worth up to £200,000 a week, a wage United are not ready to match. Many fans agree with that stance, believing for all his talent and commitment, that wage is exorbitant for someone who has made only one national team appearance and would not even crack the top-20 list for midfielders in Europe.
And the fact that he’s not willing to sign a new contract at United that is worth less than what the Ligue 1 champions are offering has rubbed some the wrong way, as fans say someone who claims to love the club should take a pay cut.
The responsibility United bear in this situation shouldn’t be ignored. This is an age where letting a player enter a season with only a year left on their contract is criminal.
On top of that, reports state United never seriously engaged Herrera in extension talks until they realised there was a possibility he could leave – even after the January deadline passed allowing him to negotiate with clubs outside of England. That was the month when United signed Ashley Young, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, and Scott McTominay to new contracts, even though none were on expiring deals.
⚖ - Manchester United or PSG?— Sky Sports Premier League (@SkySportsPL) April 12, 2019
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer says contract talks between midfielder Ander Herrera and the club are still ongoing, despite the midfielder holding talks with the French champions: https://t.co/jZifBGOS52 pic.twitter.com/ojvXF1S62h
So the question arises: is Herrera being disloyal?
The sheer scale of numbers in football distort this conversation. United’s reported offer of £150,000 per week is double his current wage, and the sort of salary most of the fans offering their opinions on Twitter can’t even dream of. Their opinion that Herrera should be satisfied with that offer, and take it, is understandable given that perspective.
But in what other profession would people expect an employee to choose a 100-per-cent wage hike over a 167-per-cent raise? There aren’t many people who “love” their employers enough to turn down that sort of extra money.
It’s hard to accept that Herrera can love United, perhaps even kiss the badge – common trigger for fans – at his next appearance, and still not take an offer that works out to £600,000 per month.
Yet when he sees the money everyone else is making at United, Alexis Sanchez, a more talented player but one whose performance level has been far below that of Herrera, while earning a reported £400,000 per week, the midfielder is entitled to wonder if he’s being paid what he’s worth. Especially when there’s another club offering significantly more.
Why should Herrera take the same deal that players who haven’t been as consistent as he has have been offered? Should he really be earning a similar wage to Smalling and Jones – another United mistake, as the mismanagement of the wage structure has been laid bare? Especially when he turns 30 this summer, and this could be the last big contract negotiation of his career?
#MUFC offered Ander Herrera huge pay rise with 4-year contract worth over £200,000 a week. PSG offered him more money, and he chose them. #MUFC wanted to keep him, but not prepared to go up to £300,000 a week for squad player turning 30 soon. It is Herrera's decision to leave— Sam Pilger (@sampilger) April 12, 2019
Herrera is leaving. (Most likely.) He’s also been a committed, passionate player who has proved his love for United.
Those statements may seem contradictory and incompatible, but that’s the truth of modern football: a player can be loyal to a club and still decide not to stay.