Erik ten Hag dropped arguably his four best players, and for an hour Manchester United were in hot water against West Ham United in the FA Cup Fifth Round.
When it gets to this point of the season, team selection can tell you a lot about a manager’s priorities as the season wears on. And with an EFL Cup win against Newcastle late on Sunday afternoon having coming on top of beating Barcelona in the Europa League it was small wonder that Erik ten Hag took the opportunity to rest some of his best-performing players of the season for an FA Cup Fifth Round match against West Ham United, their third game in six days.
If Manchester United have settled into a comfortable groove over the last few weeks or so, the starting selection for this match felt like something of a disturbance of the force. Marcus Rashford, Casemiro, Raphael Varane and Lisandro Martinez were all rested on the bench. Wout Weghorst would lead the attack. Harry Maguire was back in the centre of the defence.
This was, therefore, a Manchester United team with a spine of solid oak, but it was also missing core components of the unit that has powered its way to the quarter-finals of the Europa League, the Fifth Round of the FA Cup and third place in the Premier League this season, and it showed throughout a first half during which the best chance fell to their opponents.
Mikail Antonio scored from the bench to complete West Ham’s 4-0 rout of Nottingham Forest in their previous game, but this was only his third Premier League goal of the season and there was a slight hesitation in his movement when put through on David De Gea’s goal around midway through the first half. De Gea blocked well, but a confident striker would have taken the shot on sooner on earlier, giving themselves a bigger target to aim at by doing so.
But highlights were thin on the ground throughout a doughy first half. Manchester United played like what they were, a good team with perhaps their four best players all replaced with slightly less familiar and slightly less able replacements. West Ham looked pretty good when they did get forward, but with little end product to show for it.
Without the Bob the Builder-esque Casemiro, the pace, vision and finishing of 2023 Edition Marcus Rashford, the defensive marshalling of Raphael Varane and the ankle-biting tenacity of Lisandro Martinez, the first hour felt a little more like a 2022 Edition Manchester United than a 2023 one. West Ham’s defence contained them without breaking into too much of a sweat, and they were creating the better of the chances.
Casemiro was introduced for Scott McTominay at half-time, but it can hardly be said that his impact was immediate. Nine minutes in, West Ham were in front, and in slightly questionable circumstances.
They don’t have goal-line technology online at the touchlines, but when it looked as though Thomas Soucek may have carried the ball out of play the Manchester United defence hesitated while West Ham played on. Said Benrahma lashed the ball past De Gea, but there followed an interminable wait while the Roboref deliberated and cogitated before confirming, “Nah sorry mate, ain’t got a Scooby”. In the absence of anything conclusive confirming that the ball had gone out of play, the goal stood.
Whether the ball might have sneaked out of play or not, it would be churlish to deny that West Ham deserved their lead. They’d grown into the first half and had carried this over into the second half. Having got the goal, they tried to put the result out of reach as quickly as possible. Within five minutes of scoring, Pablo Fornals’ daisycutter across the face of goal only ran narrowly wide and Antonio got through in the left-hand channel and had his shot well saved by De Gea.
Ten Hag introduced Rashford and Martinez, another two steps back towards normality. And with just under twenty minutes to play, Casemiro flicked in Bruno Fernandes’ perfectly placed free-kick and Manchester United were level. Normal service resumed, at least until another interminable delay resulted in the goal being chalked off because Casemiro was caught at least a millimetre and a half offside.
Yes, yes, yes, I know that offside is offside and that is that, but it’s difficult not to wonder whether this sort of call is what’s intended by the offside rule being in place. And it turned out to be somewhat academic, anyway. The pressure was building to a critical mass by this point, and less than five minutes later Manchester United were level regardless, Nayef Aguerd getting himself in a tangle as a Manchester United corner, again sumptuously delivered by Fernandes, bounced off the side of his head and into his own goal.
With the crowd having found their voice, the winning goal had an air of inevitability about it. There were 89 minutes and 50 seconds on the clock when Alejandro Garnacho got the ball under control on the left-hand side of the penalty and curled his shot around Fabianski and in. With West Ham finally committed to pushing everyone forward in a fruitless attempt to salvage extra-time, United broke and Fred put the result beyond any reasonable doubt.
Manchester United supporters could have been forgiven a shiver running down their spine at half-time in this match. Their first half performance displayed much of the stodginess that plagued them last season, a reminder of seasons past which had slipped from the memory extremely quickly. But the big game players were introduced in the second half and as the game started to turn West Ham were unable to withhold the stem of the tide.
3-1 was a flattering result, and things might have worked out differently had Antonio taken one of his clear chances. But then, perhaps that’s just the difference between these two teams. West Ham have good players, but their confidence is fragile and they’re still prone to fluffing their lines at either end of the pitch. Manchester United are more than worth their place in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup, even if it did take them a long time to get there.
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