David De Gea’s horror mistake gifted West Ham their goal, but more worrying for Manchester United will be the lack of response in a tame 1-0 defeat.
A distinctly unpleasant possibility is starting to loom for Manchester United after this alarmingly sloppy non-performance at West Ham.
The talk of quadruples was always daft – and as we’ve said before never emanated from players, coaches or staff at United – but the fact it was even a theoretical possibility now has a distinct note of the absurd about it.
Not only did the title charge never materialise, but United now find themselves in an unseemly scrap for the top-four spot that has appeared a certainty for much of the campaign.
And the worry now is not just that they might lose that spot, but that they might lose it to a Liverpool side whose fast-finishing season currently resembles a reverse of United’s. Fitting in its way for these two great rivals, but it will be a mortifying way to lose out if it comes to pass. Brighton are still involved as well, the scamps.
There is mitigation for United in the cup runs that have left them the busiest side in the country in the most uniquely busy of seasons. But the recent form is now a huge worry. In the last 18 days, United have been humbled at Sevilla, scraped past Brighton on penalties in the FA Cup semi-final, come away from Spurs with a 2-2 draw that felt like a defeat, edged Aston Villa 1-0 and now lost by the same score at both Brighton and West Ham.
The way these points are being squandered isn’t pretty. Switching off completely at 2-0 and allowing a physically and mentally broken Spurs team to ease their way back into the match. Conceding a daft injury-time penalty at Brighton. A goalkeeping howler here.
United have a lot of tired minds and weary bodies trying to crawl over the line for a top-four finish, and all while trying to ensure they have something left to give in the FA Cup final against City. Trying to secure a top-four finish while worrying about an FA Cup final are undoubtedly the sort of worries plenty of clubs would dearly love to have, but there is a growing sense of a season just starting to fade away.
The goal United conceded here is, obviously, a disaster. Quite how David De Gea managed to get a full hand to a shot quite literally trickling towards him yet barely managing to alter its course at all is a genuine mystery physicists will ponder for generations to come, but while it will inevitably attract all the attention it cannot be allowed to provide cover for everything else that occurred here.
However bad that goalkeeping was – and it was very, very bad – questions must also be asked of how Said Benrahma even came to be in position to buy his lottery ticket and scoop the jackpot. He won the ball in midfield and then broke through a couple of challenges every bit as barely there as De Gea’s right glove.
More alarming still was what the goal did to the team. Until that moment, without ever really doing anything as grand as playing well, United could at least claim a vague superiority and sense of control. They certainly weren’t under much pressure or being asked many questions. But the goal rattled them in a way no single goal – no matter how bad – against relegation battlers should faze a decent side.
West Ham were the better side from that moment pretty much until the eight minutes of added time at the end of the second half when Man United made a late and really rather wanky attempt at forcing their way back into things.
Had Victor Lindelof not inexplicably escaped unscathed from a VAR inspection for a pretty obvious arm-to-ball handball penalty shout late in the first half it could have been worse. West Ham also had a goal disallowed for a Michail Antonio foul on De Gea that felt very much One Of Those Decisions Keepers Get.
Erik Ten Hag’s side were just so lacklustre and the awkward point about the tiring nature of their season is the fact this soporific performance came against West Ham, who haven’t exactly had a relaxing season themselves.
Even without the fraught nature of a relegation fight – a fight they have now almost certainly won after easing seven points clear of the bottom five with just four games left to play – West Ham can point to their own Thursday night adventures in the Conference. They have also been busy, but those exertions could well mean this ends up as one of the club’s very greatest seasons despite the assorted unpleasant moments along the way.
The fact this result effectively secures Premier League safety is secondary really; they were probably going to be fine anyway. But the extra layer of security afforded by three well-deserved points means that attention can now be given fully to the two semi-final games against AZ Alkmaar.
The Brentford game in between really isn’t important now. It’s a luxury David Moyes didn’t quite have before this result and it could be huge.
West Ham were better than Manchester United today, and could well end up with a pretty similar season: an overdue trophy in the cabinet, and a place in next season’s Europa League.