Manchester United finally have a Premier League victory at Old Trafford and a second consecutive win in the competition though they far from convinced. Ole Gunnar Solskjær will hope his side are slowly hitting high gear rather than continuing the stutter that has been the story of their campaign. Bruno Fernandes yet again was United’s key man, scoring the winner with a retaken penalty, and if he should ever be seriously injured the team may well suffer.
Solskjær gave a Premier League debut to Alex Telles – in for the injured Luke Shaw at left-back – while his other change from the win at Everton was Nemanja Matic for Scott McTominay in midfield. Paul Pogba was unavailable due to a problem picked up playing for France against Sweden on Tuesday.
Slaven Bilic’s side arrived having scored only six times and with the division’s poorest goal difference of -11, and they began with Sam Johnstone beating away Anthony Martial’s flicked header from a Fred free-kick seconds into the game.
A pattern was set in which United dominated, making the kind of sharp start that has not always been present thus far this term. It was illustrated by Harry Maguire’s back-to-front pass into Marcus Rashford that spun the visitors and which initiated an impressive period of quick pass-and-move play.
Still, sloppy passing from Matic and Fred offered West Brom a foothold as Matheus Pereira looked to profit along the left though, for the moment, this was only a glimmer of hope for them.
Soon Fernandes was buzzing across the turf, prompting United’s best moves, and when Maguire broke it was the Portuguese who teed up Martial after Rashford received a pass from his captain along the left and crossed. Johnstone made another fine save from the No 9 and Semi Ajayi was left blessing his luck as it was his errant pass that had handed possession to Maguire.
West Brom’s response was admirable. Suddenly Conor Townsend was in behind and threatening to beat David de Gea before overrunning the ball. Then Karlan Grant’s shot deflected off Victor Lindelöf for a corner that United scrambled to defend.
The home side’s early verve had eased. They still dominated the ball but were rarely penetrating in the final third. When Fernandes hit an aimless pass out of play it was a microcosm of how United had lost focus. Fernandes, though, is never long ineffective. A diagonal pass that saw Juan Mata’s clever run in from the right allowed the Spaniard to square the ball towards Martial and though West Brom survived United were reinvigorated.
Yet though they tapped the ball around the Baggies at will it was the latter who went closest before the break: Townsend’s corner was headed by Kyle Bartley and De Gea was relieved to see the ball hit the roof – rather than the back – of the net, United’s No 1 knowing little about it.
If United required a jolt West Brom gave them one when, as the second half started, Maguire’s lack of pace meant they were exposed down the right. Suddenly Conor Gallagher had gone down in the area under Fernandes’s challenge and David Coote awarded a penalty. Yet VAR informed the referee to consult the pitch-side monitor and he overruled his decision – it looked correct as Fernandes had taken ball first.
United, awakened, soon moved downfield and Rashford’s dipping shot towards the top corner forced Johnstone into an athletic stop. And how fortunes changed from here.
VAR – plus an amended part of the penalty rule – worked in United’s favour after Mata’s cross hit Darrell Furlong’s hand and Coote awarded a second spot-kick in minutes. Fernandes’s trademark hop in his run-up was followed by Johnstone saving his effort, but the keeper was a yard off his line before the ball was struck. This meant this season’s diktat that the penalty should be retaken was triggered.
This time the No 18 hopped then beat Johnstone high to his right and United had the lead. It felt barely deserved though they will hardly have cared given the desperate need for a league win here.
If United hoped to coast home Callum Robinson had other ideas, the substitute’s effort crashing back off De Gea’s bar. It signalled the contest opening up: both Rashford and Maguire were denied by the impressive Johnstone and though West Brom pressed United hung on. It means they are up to ninth with 13 points and if their game in hand is won the picture will look even rosier.