“There’s always been two sides to winning football matches, defensive discipline and offensive prowess. You have to get the balance right,” Alan Pardew said in the build-up to West Brom’s side against Manchester United.
Offering none of either is one way to find balance, but it’s unlikely to end with winning any football matches. West Brom have started under Pardew as they ended under Tony Pulis; this was another largely wretched afternoon at a stadium that has seen one home win since March 18. Home supporters are turning up to see just how much their team can fail to match even their lowest expectations.
Pardew was also resorting to his classic type. His words were intended as a defence of his opposite number Jose Mourinho, but this was a thinly veiled attempt to defend his own reputation. West Brom had failed to score in all three of his matches in charge, and had a single shot on target in his last two.
The first 25 minutes of the match were dire, West Brom hitting the ball long into vacant space and Manchester United too often sloppy with their own final pass. Ander Herrera continues to lack confidence in possession, looking rushed where once he was calm, while West Brom’s biggest threat came from Oliver Burke. The suspicion is that he has simply not been at the Hawthorns long enough to be suffocated by the smog.
The game was changed on 27 minutes. A superb cross from Marcus Rashford was converted by an expert header from Romelu Lukaku, his second in two games and another one converted without celebration. There would appear to be some residual anger about his recent criticism, whatever Mourinho’s post-match half-explanation. For balance, only Mohamed Salah has been involved in more goals and assists in the Premier League this season. It’s not all bad.
If football match threatened to become procession from then on, Jesse Lingard’s deflected shot hardly dented that notion. Ahmed Hegazi can consider himself unfortunate to have got the final touch that defeated Ben Foster, but the groan that was almost audible over the glee of the away end said it all. It is the incompetent teams who always suffer the most bad luck.
Yet even the victors can barely take much goodwill from this miserable Sunday afternoon fare. For Manchester United to engineer a grandstand finish from such a mundane stroll owes little to West Brom’s second-half intensity and more to United’s bizarre coasting and retreat towards their own goal for the final 20 minutes. But for the generosity of referee Anthony Taylor, who failed to judge that Ashley Young had barged into James McClean, it could have been worse.
There are those who will argue (and with some logic) that only the result matters for Mourinho. Yet while that is true of matches against your top-six peers, the same principle is not quite as applicable here, particularly after criticisms of United’s style. For Nemanja Matic to be booked for time-wasting against the team 19th in the Premier League having held a 2-0 lead hardly screams momentum.
For Pardew, even more pressing matters. If problems can be postponed by victories, defeats only brings them into sharper focus. There is no shame in losing to Manchester United and Pardew will presumably talk up the spirit shown late in the game, but the truth is that West Brom are still laboured. When your manager prides himself on the immediate positive impact he has on a squad, that is worrying.
Matches against Liverpool and Manchester United returning a 0-0 draw and a defeat is no disaster. But then matches against Crystal Palace and Swansea City, teams then positioned 19th and 20th in the Premier League, also produced a 0-0 draw and a defeat. So where’s the progression?
West Brom’s position is not forlorn, despite their league position. The Premier League is bunched to the extent that Southampton in 12th are only four points above them in 19th. A team needs only to reach a meagre level of competence to move away from danger, and Pardew will argue that his impact will come in time.
So too will Mourinho, whose claims that United controlled the game after West Brom scored their goal may raise a few eyebrows from those who bit nails and covered eyes in the away end during the last ten minutes. There were two managers at the Hawthorns who came into Sunday’s game needing a shot of goodwill to dissuade their critics. The honest conclusion is that neither earned one.