The influence of Paul Pogba
Manchester United’s difficulties in creating clear chances against a side shorn of confidence showed how much they can miss Paul Pogba.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had little option but to go with a midfield axis of Fred and Scott McTominay instead, but this was the kind of game that didn’t really require two more defensive midfielders, even if the Scot got forward more often in the second half.
This was Fred’s 100th game for United but he’s scored just three goals and contributed six assists, so he’s unlikely to be the player to unlock a deep and diligent defensive unit. McTominay’s attacking contribution is better but it’s based on well-timed runs into space in the box, something of which there was very little against West Brom.
It was the kind of game where Pogba’s passing range, dribbling ability and shooting from distance would have added another dimension to the United attack. Instead, they were reliant on Bruno Fernandes for inspiration, while the front three that started the game never really clicked.
It was also an indictment of where Donny van de Beek’s confidence is right now – and Solskjaer’s trust in him – that the Dutchman only appeared for the final 10 minutes or so.
He should have the ingenuity to make a difference against this kind of defence but he was called on in the closing stages. He needs games for confidence but at the moment isn’t making enough of an impression to press a case for more minutes.
That exposes United’s reliance on someone like Pogba to provide something different in midfield, which is something they lacked in the Midlands. While it was United who had all the ball and territory in the second half, it was West Brom who had all the chances.
Fernandes the saviour
Fernandes spent the first 44 minutes of this game looking like a man who’d not received a Valentine’s Day card when he was expecting one. The Portuguese playmaker was furious with his teammates and furious with the officials, and he should have been furious with his own performance.
But the beauty of Bruno is that no matter how much of an off day he’s having a flash of inspiration is only ever seconds away. His equaliser was exactly that. It was another assist for Luke Shaw – that’s now four in four games – but this was all about Fernandes, who did brilliantly to hook a volley from behind into the back of the net.
It was a goal United had badly needed. They’d been abject in the first half and the frustration shown by Fernandes was a sign of how angry the team were with their sub-standard performances. If there was one player who was going to pull them back into the game it was their attacking midfielder, however.
It’s a sign of the elite level Fernandes operates at that a difficult day at the office won’t stop him from trying the spectacular. United would be lost without him.
The balance in attack
Solskjaer might feel he’s spoilt for choice when it comes to attackers at United but finding the perfect balance for his front three is proving a difficult task.
The allure of playing Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford – 45 goals between them last season – either side of Edinson Cavani might be attractive but the potential is proving more exciting than the reality.
That set-up is managing to inconvenience two of three forwards and against West Brom they chugged through 65 minutes without ever really clicking before the obvious change was made.
In this system Rashford is shunted out to the right, when he clearly prefers to be playing on the left and is more dangerous from that flank. But having given Cavani the centre forward role Martial held last year, the Frenchman is given his secondary position of coming from the left instead.
Unfortunately, Martial’s form has been below-par for most of the season and while Rashford is frustrated to be on the right rather than the left, Martial looks annoyed to be on the left rather than through the middle.
Given the form of Mason Greenwood it was a surprise the 19-year-old was demoted to the bench against the Baggies and then something of a surprise he had to wait until the 65th minute to make his entrance.
Maguire’s attacking threat
United’s defending may not have been convincing against West Brom but Harry Maguire certainly had an impact going in the other direction.
The centre back realised during the first half that the space for United was often in front of him, with West Brom very deep and the forwards and midfielders struggling to find space.
Maguire made the most of that space and was one of United’s most dangerous attacking players in the half. One driving run saw him creep all the way into the penalty area and he played a key role in Fernandes’ equaliser.
That influence set a trend for United as well, with Victor Lindelof showing more adventure in the second half while McTominay went from being a holding midfielder to regularly popping up in the penalty area. It was the way Maguire made the most of the space in the first half that showed United the way forward.
The captain almost won it at the end as well, his brilliant header saved superbly by Sam Johnstone in the final minute of stoppage time.
Dip in form
This is now just two wins in United’s last six games in all competitions, one of which required extra-time against West Ham in midweek.
It’s certainly not been a convincing spell for this side, even if it did include that 9-0 win against Southampton, and they’ve dropped five points to Sheffield United and West Brom, the Premier League’s two bottom clubs, to all but end any hopes of a title challenge deep into this season.
Solskjaer has rotated his squad regularly to try and keep them fresh this season but right now they look to be going through a difficult patch. Every side will have one this season, but Solskjaer will know he has to pull United out of this one quickly considering they have some testing games coming up in the next few weeks.