Was this a hard-fought win or a fortunate one? Either way, Manchester United have their first Old Trafford victory of the Premier League season at their fifth attempt, though they required a retaken Bruno Fernandes penalty in order to overcome winless West Bromwich Albion.
Sam Johnstone had not put a foot wrong all night on his return, with the former United academy goalkeeper making several key saves that gave Slaven Bilic’s disciplined visitors every chance of a point, until he literally put both feet wrong by straying far off his line to deny Fernandes from the spot.
Fernandes converted the re-take to score United’s first league goal at Old Trafford in 324 minutes and set up a much-needed home win, albeit an unconvincing one. On another day, the quietly solid West Brom could have taken a result and were contentiously denied a penalty of their own when a Fernandes tackle on Conor Gallagher was overturned on review.
While Bilic’s wait for that elusive three points goes on, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side avoided the ignominy of failing to win their opening five home games for the first time since 1972 and climbed into the top half of the table with this result, above Manchester City. After the win at Everton before the international break, Solskjaer may have something to build on.
Nevertheless, the United manager will know that improvement is needed in order to recover from an unconvincing start to the campaign. A taxing win over one of the favourites for relegation does not immediately inspire the confidence that Solskjaer needs to turn United’s early season fortunes around.
This began as a meeting between the teams in 14th and 18th place and felt like it for much of the first half. Anthony Martial forced two fine saves out of Johnstone inside the opening quarter-of-an-hour – the first from a glancing header, the second from a low shot inside the penalty area – but it otherwise did not take long for the familiar pattern to emerge.
United’s chronic struggles to break down opponents who sit in a low block returned, bringing Solskjaer’s selection into question. Nemanja Matic was rested during the break, having retired from his duties with Serbia earlier this year, but his inclusion in the centre of midfield still felt unnecessarily cautious against a side that is yet to register a league win this season, especially with Donny van de Beek once again sat among the substitutes.
Despite their abysmal form, West Bromwich played their hosts even and had chances of their own to go ahead, with Karlan Grant firing only a few inches wide of the far post at one stage. Yet the game only truly came to life after the break with two video technology interventions in quick succession. Referee David Coote and Peter Bankes, the VAR, ultimately reached the correct decisions, though United were nevertheless fortunate that they went their way.
Fernandes was at the centre of both, bringing down the impressive Gallagher inside the penalty area for the first. After much protest from the Portugal international, Coote took a closer look at the incident on the pitchside monitor and judged that Fernandes had made contact with the ball as well as Gallagher. Given that a similar incident went in Solly March’s favour during the late stages of Brighton’s win at Aston Villa earlier in the day, the overturn felt inevitable.
Fernandes was stepping up to the spot at the other end shortly after when Darnell Furlong was penalised for handball while attempting to avoid Juan Mata’s cross. Fernandes went low to Johnstone’s left and saw his effort saved, but the West Brom goalkeeper’s celebrations were short-lived. He had stepped well off his goal-line before Fernandes struck the ball – perhaps due to the stuttered run-up.
Just as when he was reprieved in the Champions League win over Paris Saint-Germain last month, Fernandes made no mistake at the second attempt. West Brom almost responded through substitute Callum Robinson, who struck the bar from distance, but lacked the firepower to mount any sort of comeback. United similarly struggled to fashion opportunities and extend their lead. The three points are welcome, but improvement is needed.
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