West Brom led twice through fine goals from Stephane Sessegnon and Saido Berahino but each time were pegged back by equally impressive strikes from the visitors. Marouane Fellaini finally found the net for United with a superb finish before Daley Blind’s measured effort secured a point.
It was a game that offered an intriguing contrast between the form of the opposing strikers as well as further emphasising the continued problems in United’s back line…
United’s shaky defence
Louis van Gaal was emphatic afterwards in his insistence that United had been the better side at the Hawthorns, citing the number of opportunities his team had created and the volume of possession they'd enjoyed. But the conclusion was obvious. Dominating the ball and the chances will not guarantee success while United continue to defend this poorly.
The problems were manifold. In an attempt to share the responsibility between his players, Van Gaal made the legitimate point that his team must defend better from the front – and it’s true this was a collective failure. But there were also individual errors all over the pitch with his back four particularly culpable.
Phil Jones was alarmingly slack in his use of the ball, while the gap between Marcos Rojo and Luke Shaw was exploited time and again in the first half - including for Sessegnon’s opener. Shaw, in particular, had positional problems without the ball and was wasteful with it. As for Rafael on the opposite flank, it was the Brazilian who played Berahino onside for Albion’s second.
Baggies boss Alan Irvine admitted that he had looked to exploit United’s weakness, claiming that when an opponent plays as open as Van Gaal’s side they can be punished when they lose possession. It’s something other managers will have spotted too and with Chelsea and Manchester City up next, a defensive display similar to this one could prove disastrous.
Berahino for England?
Albion deserve credit for having the quality to capitalise on the lack of cohesion in United’s defence and much of that was down to the performance of Berahino. The youngster looked sharp throughout and showed an impressive ability to mix up his movement between showing for the ball into feet and looking for the run in behind. Clear opportunities were at a premium but the menace was there and when the chance did come he took it beautifully.
Indeed, it is extraordinary how composed the 21-year-old is in front of goal, showing an almost unnatural calmness for a player of his age. A fine penalty taker, Berahino seized his one-on-one chance against David de Gea in similar style and an England call-up would now seem inevitable.
Roy Hodgson’s decision to let Berahino help the Under-21s reach next summer’s European Championship in the playoff against Croatia was understandable, but with the next England get-together not far away, the player can surely expect to be involved with the seniors. Rickie Lambert is yet to score in 11 appearances this season. Meanwhile, Berahino is already in double figures for club and country.
Van Persie struggling
The contrast between Berahino and the striker at the other end of the pitch was also marked. And for all RVP’s pedigree, the Dutchman did not come out of the comparison too favourably. In fact, that economy of movement that was so celebrated when he was at his lethal best now feels like it might just be the beginnings of an inexorable decline.
There have been some suggestions that Van Persie has lost some of his desire, but perhaps the truth is that at the age of 31 it is the fact that the edge has been taken from him physically that’s proving more problematic. He did run against Albion. It just wasn’t with the acceleration of old.
The Premier League tracking data shows that he covered 10.93 kilometres on Monday – only Blind and Shaw managed more in a United shirt – and with 57 high intensity runs he wasn’t far behind Shaw (62) as United’s top sprinter. But the telling statistic could be that his fastest speed was logged at 28.07km/h – the slowest recorded of the 18 players who completed the whole match.
Another concern is that even when the chances did come his way, he was unable to take them. In the first half, there was a poor connection with a near-post shot and another effort was blocked. After the break, there was a badly-mistimed header and – his best moment – a right-footed strike against the foot of the post.
With Wayne Rooney suspended and Danny Welbeck long gone, Van Persie needs to deliver. Instead he could still find his place at threat, with Radamel Falcao looking a sharper proposition when he came on. If Van Gaal opts for a lone striker against Chelsea, the case for Van Persie to be that man is weakening by the game.
Finally for Fellaini
If Van Persie needs a goal, how must Fellaini feel? More than a year after making his Manchester United debut and at the 24th attempt, the £28.5million man finally scored his first goal for the club. And it was quite the goal too.
There was a nudge on Joleon Lescott that might have been spotted by referee Mike Dean but the three touches that followed it were superb. The first brought the ball under the control, the second shifted it away from his marker and the third was a powerful finish high into the net. The mixture of relief and joy was palpable. The visiting fans were even chanting his name.
Certainly, Fellaini more than justified his introduction at half time and threatened to add another goal soon after as he got into the box regularly with Lescott and Craig Dawson having to defend well to deny him. The Belgian looked a potent weapon when allowed to roam forwards rather than concern himself with playmaking duties.
Of course, it would be premature to describe this as a potential turning point but Fellaini does have reason to be encouraged that the worst is behind him. Van Gaal has appeared genuinely frustrated by the player’s injury problems so – regardless of his detractors – it seems Fellaini will at least be a useful option at United in the short-to-medium term.
Vision from Blind
Live Ford Super Sunday
United’s other goalscorer was also opening his account for the club, albeit in only his fifth Premier League appearance and the astuteness of the finish was typical of the way he has impressed since his arrival in England. By most measurements, he was his team’s best player.
Blind covered more ground than his team-mates (11.48 kilometres), played the most passes (74) and did so more accurately (93.2 per cent) than anyone else on the pitch. But there was a purpose to it as well. He also created more chances than any United player, had more shots and, of course, scored the equalising goal.
If there is a concern, it would be whether he needs more support alongside him in providing defensive cover for this United team. Blind is an effective enough deep-lying playmaker with his tidy use of the ball but there is a suspicion this defence is going to need more protection than that for the examinations that are to come. One way or another, we'll find out a lot more about this United team against Chelsea this weekend.