One-nil is always a dangerous lead and especially if you are hosting Manchester United, victors in seven Premier League matches this season after conceding first.
This seemed certain to be the eighth yet lowly West Brom, with two wins all season, may rue the dropped points more than United. Especially Mbaye Diagne.
For all the justifiable concern for David de Gea’s form, he showed why United need reinforcements in front of him more than in goal. Diagne denuded Victor Lindelof and Harry Maguire but when the West Brom forward bore down on goal in the second-half the De Gea of old returned, psyching out his opponent with one save and defying all logic to claw the ball away when Diagne was about to nod in.
“Come on, come on, keep going,” De Gea demanded in the dying embers. His place will not be as disputed when Newcastle visit next weekend.
Maguire’s and Lindelof’s will. It was not the first time Maguire abdicated responsibility and, for the umpteenth time, Lindelof lost an aerial duel to the imposing Diagne. Diagne had enough chances for a hat-trick.
From open play and set-plays, United’s centre is too soft if they are to ever become credible championship challengers under their incumbent manager. They never were genuine contenders in this freakish season and they are no longer looming in Manchester City’s wing mirrors. United are seven points behind and City have a game in hand. United have dropped nine points from their last 15.
Solskjaer is seeking an experienced upgrade at centre half and this was additional evidence for the dossier. It is on Solskjaer he sanctioned a world-record fee for a defender who does not have a world-class ceiling, hence the growing clamour for a stellar centre-back. Maguire almost atoned with an added time header Sam Johnstone gloved onto the post.
In his own area, Maguire appears to conflate a streetwise streak with looking desperate, crying foul again after the event. Lindelof was so weak for Diagne’s goal it exaggerated the ‘foul’ Maguire appealed for and the United captain was too deep again for more than one cross.
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Three times West Brom fashioned chances from airborne deliveries and Sam Allardyce was basking in his halcyon days of ruffling the feathers of the elite with Bolton and Blackburn. De Gea, rooted to his line for the floated cross Diagne converted, spared United a first domestic away defeat in more than a year.
United still had a half to convert a draw into a win and had chances. Solskjaer presided over recoveries with interval changes at Southampton and West Ham in the winter but United were trailing in both and the unwritten rule is United have to be losing to change.
That flawed logic was apparent at The Hawthorns, where Anthony Martial’s heat map was never going to warm up the weather. He was hooked for Mason Greenwood in the 65th minute and Greenwood did more in four minutes than Martial did in an hour, testing Johnstone.
Solskjaer became frustrated with Scott McTominay and Fred amid their inability to decide on who stayed and who went. He implored Fernandes, perhaps literally caught cold by the icy rain, to ‘come on’. Fernandes lashed in a world-class volley having performed at a level that would have shamed a hungover Sunday league veteran.
For the first time in aeons, United truly missed Paul Pogba’s influence and it reflected particularly badly on Donny van de Beek, a creative option from deep, that he was never going to line up in the Midlands maelstrom. In Pogba’s absence, United need a lock-picker should Fernandes fail to crack the code and Van de Beek is just not trusted to carry out that remit from the start. He belatedy emerged in the 77th minute.
United’s balance was compromised by two right-footers on the flanks in the absence of the dropped Greenwood. Solskjaer explained his withdrawal in midweek was to manage the teenager’s playing time and five days later he was not playing. That was a patent mistake.
Marcus Rashford continues to regard the right-sided role as a graveyard shift and Solskjaer, such a polished auxiliary winger in his playing days he ousted David Beckham, provided pointers. For the umpteenth time this season, Luke Shaw excelled with the wing play to tee up Fernandes.
The irony of home sides who dare to take a winning position against United is they usually end up losing and Maguire was well inside their third towards the end of the second-half. He was inside the West Brom area to earn a penalty, then appeared offside yet was not offside. The referee Craig Pawson indicated a free-kick to West Brom without booking Maguire for simulation. The Video Assistant Referee continues to specialise in confusion.
“Keep playing,” Solskjaer advised seconds before Fernandes struck and that had to be the mantra for the second-half. Scott McTominay would have made it four goals in as many games but for the vigilance of Darnell Furlong on the line and Maguire fell to his knees in the last seconds when Johnstone flung to his left.
De Gea would have approved.