Manchester United have won more games this season than any team playing in Europe’s top five leagues, in part because they have played half a dozen more games than everyone else.
They were the last European team still involved in four competitions. They played a two-legged tie in the Europa League play-off in a period when the majority of other sides in Europe had only played one European match. By the time United reach the March international break, they will have played 24 games in 84 days since the post-World Cup resumption of the season.
This is an exhausting stretch of games and a fifth-round FA Cup match against West Ham United was match number 19 in the series. As such, Erik ten Hag made six changes to the starting line-up that won the Carabao Cup on Sunday.
The end result was a 3-1 victory. The star performers for United were Alejandro Garnacho — who is developing a knack for important goals — and Wout Weghorst.
Opinions on the performance across 90 minutes will vary. This was either:
- Proof that United should not be considered in a title race/outright favourites for the remaining cup competitions.
- A gritty and streetwise showing that only prospective champions with good momentum are capable of.
The inclusions of Victor Lindelof, Harry Maguire, Tyrell Malacia, Marcel Sabitzer, Scott McTominay and Garnacho led to an uneven opening 45 minutes at Old Trafford. The central midfield partnership of Sabitzer and McTominay failed to knit together United’s attack and defence, as both men are most effective when driving with the ball into the final third. Despite McTominay’s willingness to play as the deepest midfielder, the manner in which he receives and passes the ball slowed down attempts to progress the play quickly.
Couple this with United’s rotated back four and repeated attempts from Garnacho and Antony to cut inside and shoot from wide areas, and the side lacked the attacking guile to go with their new-found defensive grit. David de Gea, who celebrated a record-breaking 181 clean sheets for Manchester United with Sir Alex Ferguson before kick-off, once again had to make many great stops to keep his team in the game.
After 12 years at Manchester United, David de Gea was recognised before the game for overtaking Peter Schmeichel’s record for the most clean sheets of any goalkeeper in the club’s history (Photo: Marc Atkins/Getty Images)
Before kick-off, Ten Hag talked up the energy levels of his wider squad, believing his players had the appetite to keep going through this draining run of matches. At half-time, one got the sense United might stumble without key players featuring in every game. Bruno Fernandes’ fitness and ability to positively affect a game are remarkable, but he is the outlier in a squad still reshaping itself.
As such, an underwhelming first half led to the United manager replacing McTominay with Casemiro ahead of the second half. But before things got better, United’s men needed a brief wake-up call.
West Ham’s opening goal came from a fortuitous/calamitous event where United’s back four switched off momentarily, believing Tomas Soucek had taken the ball out of play and given away a throw-in. The entirety of the ball had not left the field, and in that pause from United’s defence, West Ham managed to work it to Saïd Benrahma, whose shot made it 1-0 to the visitors just before the hour mark.
In what was only his ninth start under Ten Hag, Harry Maguire appeared more interested in protesting against the throw-in decision than trying to prevent Benrahma’s goal. It has been a difficult 2022-23 for United’s club captain, who once again looked uncertain playing at right centre-back after spending so much of his career on the left. Maguire collected a booking in the 27th minute for a tackle on Michail Antonio when the West Ham forward looked ready to start a possible counter-attack, but was still within his own half. The 2019-20 and 2020-21 iterations of Maguire would make such a tackle and come away with the ball. The version from the past two seasons makes the tackle and then gives away a free-kick.
But United rallied, with Ten Hag bringing on Lisandro Martinez and Marcus Rashford for Lindelof and Antony respectively. It was yet another well-timed and impactful substitution from the 53-year-old, addressing two points of concern in United’s performance. Martinez’s passing worked in conjunction with Casemiro’s to transform how the side passed through the thirds and Rashford’s potent goal threat gave West Ham defenders something to worry about.
Weghorst is a willing worker but needs to serve as a goalscoring foil in this team; following Ten Hag’s substitutions, he was able to act as a piano carrier while more technical players focused on playing dulcet tones. The striker is not as good in the air as his 6ft 6in frame would suggest but his aggression from a Bruno Fernandes free-kick led to Nayef Aguerd’s own goal in the 77th minute. His blocked shot in the 90th minute spun into the path of Garnacho, whose touch and finish led to United’s second. The Dutchman then forced a turnover from a West Ham goal kick and Fred seized on the loose ball to score the third and seal passage to the FA Cup quarter-finals.
“This team is composed, it doesn’t show panic,” said the United manager. “We can change the dynamics of the game, either different formations, bringing subs on, but also with the players on the pitch.
“They are able to set up the tempo — increase the tempo and then create chances. The belief is so strong, the resilience is so strong. They hate losing. They believe they can always come back, and that’s what they did.“
Winning begets more winning, and while there are a few points of concern for this United side (Ten Hag will want them eventually to learn how to decrease the tempo of games), they have a fighting spirit that can take them through trickier moments. A home tie against Fulham awaits in the next round. Having already won silverware in February, don’t bet against Manchester United challenging for more come May.
(Top photo: Daniel Chesterton/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)