WEST BROMWICH, England — Three thoughts from Manchester United’s 2-1 win at West Brom on Sunday.
1. Man United show character to carry on title fight
Manchester United have at least shown they want to give themselves a chance of catching Manchester City. On a cold, wet December afternoon at The Hawthorns, playing a West Brom team with a new manager and battling relegation, it would have been easy for them to play like they know second is about as good as it’s going to get this season. But they didn’t.
Most of the players will have watched City batter Tottenham 4-1 at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday night to open up a 14-point lead at the top. And if they have got any hope at all of producing an unlikely comeback, these are the kind of tricky away trips they need to win.
Romelu Lukaku’s third goal in four games — a back-post header almost identical to the one he got against Bournemouth on Wednesday — got United going after 27 minutes. And when Jesse Lingard’s shot from the edge of the box deflected in off Ahmed Hegazi eight minutes later, the travelling fans behind the goal started singing “park the bus, park the bus Man United” — a reference to the video of City players singing the same song after beating Tottenham.
Jose Mourinho’s mood was dampened in the second half when Antonio Valencia was forced off with a hamstring injury. His replacement, Marcos Rojo, had a hand in West Brom’s goal as Chris Brunt’s corner came back off the Argentina international for Gareth Barry to prod in after 77 minutes. It set up a nervous 10 minutes but United held on. They’re just about clinging on in the title race, too.
2. Lukaku back scoring and Lingard continues impressive run
Lukaku is back to scoring goals. His header against West Brom was his third in four games after a run of one goal in 12. He has also now scored in back-to-back Premier League games after having the misfortune to set up the two Manchester City goals in the derby defeat at Old Trafford. Mourinho maintained throughout Lukaku’s drought that he was “happy” with his striker. He might not admit it, but he will be happier now he is scoring again.
There is still a debate about whether Lukaku can do it consistently against the top six, but his record against the rest of the league is phenomenal. His goal against West Brom was his 31st in 39 games against non-top six sides since the start of the 2016-17 season.
He didn’t celebrate against Bournemouth on Wednesday and refused again at The Hawthorns, although that might have been out of respect for the fans he played for during a season on loan in 2012-13. He seemed pleased enough when Lingard doubled United’s lead. United don’t play against another top-six side until they visit Tottenham on Jan. 31 and Mourinho will settle for Lukaku showing just how much of a “flat track bully” he can be until then.
Lingard’s fourth goal in five games was a belated birthday present to himself after turning 25 on Friday. Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s continued absence has given Lingard the chance to make himself a regular and he has taken it.
3. West Brom need to fix their home form
West Brom have slipped into the bottom three and if they hope to get out before May, they need to fix their home form. After beating Bournemouth on the opening day of the season, they have not won at the Hawthorns since. Kieran Gibbs, signed from Arsenal in the summer, has played 16 times for the club and is still waiting to be on the winning side.
A visit from United is perhaps not a game from which Alan Pardew was expecting much, to be fair. Everton are here on Boxing Day and even through their form has improved under Sam Allardyce, it is a game West Brom should be looking to win.
The Baggies are organised enough that they will keep clean sheets against teams who don’t have the benefit of United’s firepower but goals are still an issue and in four games under Pardew, they have only scored once. Salomon Rondon, who started as a lone front-man, worked hard to hard up the ball against Chris Smalling and Phil Jones but was never given a chance to test David De Gea.
Oliver Burke was bright on his first start but Pardew may already be looking at the January transfer window to solve the problem. Finding a striker who can get 10 league goals for a struggling side is easier said than done.