Manchester United may have beaten West Ham in the end, but only thanks to a very strange substitution, deep into stoppage-time of a mad game.
Before this trip to the London Stadium to play West Ham United, the most glaring point to have been raised by Cristiano Ronaldo’s two appearances for Manchester United has been the extent to which he has fulfilled everybody’s expectations of him. His Premier League return against Newcastle United was, effectively, an Avram Glazer fever dream come to life. More replica shirts with his name on the back being sold than there are people in Manchester, two goals accompanied by those Trademark Celebrations™, talk of that pesky European Super League successfully crushed by the weight of a cheque book, and talk of that other stuff only briefly brought up by a plane flying over Old Trafford during the match.
But against Young Boys in the Champions League in his second match, the narrative swung in the opposite direction. There was another goal and another Trademark Celebration™, but there was also Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s refusal to withdraw his least mobile player when a substitution was required following a sending-off, and ultimately a defeat which came about thanks to a comically late winning goal, scored by a team with a funny name, in a stadium with an even funnier name. This was the Manchester United that critics of the signing had warned of, unbalanced and bloated, more in thrall to celebrity than winning football matches, but with the star player having scored three goals in two games. After so little time, everybody has already their preconceptions realised, for better or for worse.
His third game against West Ham wasn’t going to be a decider in this ‘debate’, because there can be no deciders in a circular conversation such as this. Every move, every accident of fate and every off-hand remark will be justification for a previously-held viewpoint. But West Ham United – and this fact of the last 13 months continues to surprise everybody, up to and including West Ham supporters – aren’t Newcastle United. They went into this match knowing that a win would, possibly only temporarily (but that’s not really the point), put them into second place in the Premier League. All this while being coached by David Moyes, one of the very first public faces of Manchester United’s inability to adjust to life in a post-Ferguson world.
For 45 minutes, there seemed to be little between Manchester United and their supporting cast, not that you’d have worked this out had you been watching the match with Sky Sports, whose commentary managed to mention Ronaldo within less than five seconds of the end of the pre-match minute’s applause for the late Jimmy Greaves, and who then spent the whole of the first half viewing the game solely through the prism of the inevitability of Manchester United’s win. West Ham even had the temerity to take the lead after half an hour when a heavily deflected shot from Said Benrahma completely wrong-footed David de Gea.
The lead didn’t last for long, though. Five minutes later, Bruno Fernandes’ clipped pass found Ronaldo just onside; his first shot was spilled by Lukasz Fabianski for a simple tap-in.
Much as the commentary team knew their priorities, for much of the first half they were discussing a match that wasn’t really taking place. West Ham more than played their part, as might have been expected when these two teams started the day as two of the last four unbeaten sides in the Premier League. But to a point, this was a curious game from both. West Ham looked excellent when they had possession, but seemed reluctant to go and get it in the first place. Manchester United attacked as though their entire tactical philosophy has been boiled down to a whiteboard in the dressing room with “Just Kick It To Him” scrawled across it.
Missing Michail Antonio and having had a day’s less rest, West Ham United could only really play in bursts. When they did break, they did so with pace and imagination against a Manchester United defence that looked a little leaden-footed at times. It was just surprising that they didn’t seem particularly concerned about winning the ball to get themselves into those positions in the first place.
The match finally woke up in its last few minutes with confirmation that football is at its best when it’s being really, really stupid. With a couple of minutes to play, Jesse Lingard, who’d been introduced as a substitute to warm applause from the home supporters – applause that they probably wished they could have retracted soon after – curled Manchester United into a late lead. Then, two minutes into stoppage-time, Kurt Zouma went in for an ill-advised tackle on Ronaldo which looked like a sure penalty, only for both referee Martin Atkinson and the VAR to turn it away.
West Ham attacked the other end immediately and when Andriy Yarmolenko’s cross thudded against Luke Shaw’s outstretched arm the extra pair of eyes did decide to step in, awarding West Ham a late penalty and an opportunity to scramble themselves a point.
With admirable magnanimity, though, David Moyes opted for a very strange decision indeed, withdrawing Jarrod Bowen so that Mark Noble could come on and take the kick. As might have been predicted, a few stretches turned out to be insufficient to come on and take this late opportunity, even if the goalkeeper was David de Gea. The Manchester United No. 1 saved a weak shot comfortably.
It turns out, then, that there can be a narrative surrounding Manchester United this season that doesn’t involve St Cristiano of Ronaldo. It’s just that it takes a returning player scoring from the bench against the team he was on loan to last season, a penalty award not being given to the most famous footballer on the planet in stoppage-time, an almost contentious penalty being given immediately after this, the unfathomable decision to bring on a player specifically to take that penalty, and that penalty then being saved by a goalkeeper who doesn’t usually save penalties for this to happen. And all in the space of five minutes.
West Ham will be kicking themselves at this late, late brain-melt. Manchester United showed both of the faces that they showed in their previous two matches, and whether you consider them to have been lucky or ultimately vindicated on Sunday will probably depend on whether you support them or not. But it is at least appropriate, as the crowd filtered away from the London Stadium on this of all days, that so many will likely have left thinking about what a funny old game this can be.