It was not the defeat Jose Mourinho claimed might as good as end Manchester United’s hopes of a top four place but a bitterly disappointing draw was damaging enough. With Liverpool and Spurs both winning, United lost more ground on their rivals. The picture could get worse if Manchester City beat Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday. The Europa League is looking increasingly like United’s best chance of a route into next season’s Champions League.
There have been plenty of games at Old Trafford this term where United have battered the opposition but not got the goals to show for their supremacy. This was not one of them. They saw plenty of the ball but they lacked any real fluency or menace and, as good as Ben Foster was on the day, the West Bromwich Albion goalkeeper was not overemployed in the way, say, Burnley’s Tom Heaton or Bournemouth’s Artur Boruc were.
Tony Pulis came for a scrappy point and got one. It was not pretty to watch but United have to find a way of breaking these sort of sides down. For too long at home now, it has been a puzzle they are largely unable to solve.
Unless you count the lump Anthony Martial was sporting below his left eye, no one left a mark on any note on a dismal first half, the lasting impression of which was the persistent sound of Mike Dean’s whistle being blown.
It was stop, start, stop, start. That will have probably have been music to Pulis’s ears, though. If West Brom’s plan was to prevent United from finding their rhythm, from gaining any momentum, they certainly did that, although the home side did themselves few favours. Martial was game and at least tried to force the issue on occasion but he still looks some way short of last season’s player and, everywhere else you looked, there was a distinct lack of quality.
Juan Mata and Paul Pogba were injured and Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Ander Herrera suspended and it showed. Henrik Mkhitaryan struggled to impose himself in the No. 10 role, spurning his one chance when Foster saved as the Armenian nipped into the clear. Jesse Lingard, short of standing up a decent cross to the far post that Martial could only head wide from close range, made few inroads. Rashford was willing but mostly well shackled by West Brom’s dependable centre-half pairing of Gareth McAuley and Jonny Evans, even if he did force two very good saves from Foster with a drive and then a free-kick from distance. It is six months and counting since the England striker scored in the league.
United have found early goals hard to come by all season, especially at Old Trafford, and the knock-on effect is that the opposition grow in confidence, the crowd gets edgy and the tension in the team builds. No wonder Mourinho is desperate to inject more cutting edge this summer. West Brom broke up the play well, drawing fouls and committing them when necessary. Martial took a blow above his left cheek late in the first half after clashing with Craig Dawson and made the full extent of his displeasure known to Dean at the interval. But as much as West Brom were willing and able to rough up their opponents, United’s passing, by and large, was not good enough to unpick them.
Martial had an effort deflected wide, Rashford and Michael Carrick shots blocked but the best opening probably fell to West Brom in the 51st minute when the ball was pulled back to Darren Fletcher, who could not get a strong or clean enough strike of the ball and saw the shot repelled. United reacted with one of their best passages of play. The ball was moved quickly between Marouane Fellaini, Rashford, Lingard and into Mkhitaryan. A challenge came in, the ball feel to Fellaini but the Belgian stabbed a shot wide of the post.
Then came those Foster saves to deny first Mkhitaryan and Rashford in quick succession. Pulis will have been delighted at the stifling effect of his spoiling tactics. His modus operandi was reflected in the 67th minute when Nacer Chadli, one of his few creative players, made way for defensive midfielder Claudio Yacob. The West Brom manager knows his way around this league and United’s frustration could be heard in the groans of the crowd. Allan Nyom, already on a yellow card, was fortunate not to receive a second yellow card for pulling back Lingard.
Mourinho threw on Wayne Rooney for Mkhitaryan but it made little difference. Rashford saw a 20-yard free-kick tipped aside late on by Foster but United had a fright of their own when David De Gea, unable to catch a long range strike from Fletcher, ended up having to push the ball on to the crossbar.
West Brom's plan has worked and the game ends goalless. Thank god that's over.
90 mins +4
Rooney's biggest contribution to the game as he wrestles with Yacob in midfield after Fellaini and the West Brom midfielder push their heads together.
90 mins +3
Brunt win a free-kick in midfield and time is running out for United.
90 mins +2
West Brom are just so organised, and United are still being limited to shots from distance. Lingard's the latest to have an effort blocked.
Four minutes added on.
What a save from Foster! Rashford lines up a free-kick 30 yards from goal and his shot is headed for the top corner, but Foster flings himself towards the ball and tips over! Incredible stuff.
Darren Fletcher drives an effort at goal, and he's hit it well enough but De Gea should catch it easily. He gets two hands to it but takes his eye off the ball and spills it over his head and onto his crossbar! Nearly a nightmare for the United goalie.
The clock is ticking and Marouane Fellaini is creeping forwards. Only a matter of time before United start going more direct, I'd predict.
Nyom grapples with Lingard and the Old Trafford crowd want a second yellow card for the West Brom defender. It was barely a foul, though, and that's the end of that one.
Perhaps the most entertaining thing to happen today as Mike Dean awards a contested drop ball. Haven't seen one of them in a while.
What a run from Ashley Young to the byline, and his pull-back nearly ends up in the net, but it cannons off Evans and behind for a corner.
And just like that, Wazza comes on for Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Can he be United's saviour once again?
Will this man come on to save the day?
Once again, West Brom clear the corner, but United come again. They work the ball to Rashford on the edge of the box, and he opens up before unleashing a thunderous effort at goal. It's heading for the top corner but Foster does well to palm it away.
United win another corner as Evans tackles Valencia. Can they finally make one of these set-pieces count?
Robson-Kanu has worked really hard today, but he looks absolutely shattered now. Rondon is getting ready and will replace the Welshman shortly.
A huge, huge chance for Mkhitaryan, after McAuley makes a mistake to allow the Armenian in on goal, but Foster does well to get out quickly and deny him.
United have West Brom pegged back in their own box, and for now they can't get out. Corner after corner comes in, but that is Albion's bread and butter, really.
Martial has another shot from distance, and he connects well enough, but it fizzes wide of the post. He's sure it should be a corner but goal kick is the decision.
Better from United, with Martial, Lingard and Fellaini combining well on the edge of the box. The ball eventually finds Mkhitaryan but he is closed down quickly - he wants a penalty for the challenge on him, but Mike Dean waves away the appeals.
A terrible delivery from Chadli and the corner comes to nothing.
Fletcher stabs a shot at goal but it is deflected wide for a corner.
Nyom gets himself into all sorts of bother, with his clearance finding only Rashford inside the West Brom area. He dances away from a challenge but his shot is charged down. Carrick's follow up goes wide.
Martial and Rashford exchange passes well and it opens up for Martial, but Dawson comes across to make a crucial and well-timed last-ditch tackle.
Nyom charges into Carrick and gets a yellow card for what was a very clumsy challenge.
The second half is underway
Let's hope for something else in the next 45 minutes.
West Brom were unadventurous in the first 45
West Brom managed just a solitary, off-target shot in the first half.
Average touch positions (half time)
Time on ball (first half)
Report on the first half:
Absolutely nothing to report.
One minute added on.
Three free-kick comes to nothing. And so does United's attempted counter. Bleurgh.
Robson-Kanu spins off Bailly, and in his attempts to come across and cover, Rojo takes out the West Brom man and earns the first yellow of the afternoon.
This sums things up so far nicely
Stop, start, stop, start. Been a dismal half to watch so far. Whistle blown all the time, barely anyone stringing a pass together
— James Ducker (@TelegraphDucker) April 1, 2017
A silly challenge from Bailly gives West Brom a free kick by the corner flag. Chadli over it, De Gea claims well.
West Brom attack yet to make much of an impression
The visitors haven't yet managed to apply some concerted pressure on the Man Utd backline.
West Brom have a free-kick, just right-of-centre, around 30 or 35 yards from goal. Chris Brunt is over it. It will have to be special to beat David De Gea. Fletcher taps it into his path, and he powers a shot at goal, but it flies into the wall.
Robson-Kanu pulls wide and gets his foot on the ball long enough to get a cross in. It flies well over McClean, but that was VERY NEARLY West Brom's first touch in the United box today.
They really can be tiresome, Tony Pulis's teams.
United are ramping up the pressure here. Lingard's cross finds Martial rising at the far post, and he gets up well, but heads wide of the post.
Time on ball (15 - 30 min)
This time Rashford doesn't wrap his foot around his shot quite enough and the ball sails wide.
Carrick feeds Lingard on the right, but his poke at goal rolls harmlessly wide. Still no shots on target.
Lingard is struggling physically against Nyom out on the right. West Brom looking solid so far.
Martial drives at the West Brom defence after Craig Dawson is caught out of position diving in for an interception. He cuts onto his right and bends an effort at the far corner, but it is deflected wide.
West Brom struggle to clear their lines, with Robson-Kanu gifting Rashford a chance that he drills wide.
Some action!! Fellaini turns on a low cross in the box but the ball cannons up off his arms and away. Mike Dean gives a free kick for handball. Not sure if you would call that action, on second thoughts.
Veeeeery little happening at Old Trafford so far...
Time on ball (0 - 15 min)
Man Utd are dominating the ball so far
Man Utd have had 137 touches of the ball compared to 47 by West Brom.
10 minutes in and United have their first chance. Lingard blazes a volley over the bar.
Robson-Kanu is going to have a long day up front for West Brom today. He holds the ball up and wins a free-kick, already sweating bucketloads having spent seven minutes chasing the ball.
Predictably, United are seeing all of the ball early on. West Brom have barely strung a pass together. Presumably we should be prepared for 90 minutes of this.
United get us started
West Brom change ends before kick off, and then Mike Dean gets the game underway.
A slight worry over this opponent?
2 - Man United have lost two of their last three PL home games against WBA (W1), this after being unbeaten in the previous seven. Jitters.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) April 1, 2017
No Ibra, no party?
United are without their main man again today but they have an exciting, pacy front four that will pose a different threat to the West Brom defence. It will be interesting to see whether or not Ibrahimovic's absence favours the visitors.
Mourinho wants side to play through pain
On the eve of today's match, Jose Mourinho called on his players to ignore any niggles they may have as they chase a top-four spot.
United – who must negotiate a gruelling April schedule encompassing nine matches – are now seven points behind Liverpool in fourth, albeit with two games in hand.
“Every match now for us is a big match.
“The Europa League is to play the quarter-final or go home. In the Premier League one more victory we are in the run [for the top four], one defeat maybe you are not in the run anymore.
“The players have to be resilient, they have to be professionals, they have to be team players, they have to understand the team’s needs, they have to go to the limits, they have to play with small injuries, they have to play with pain, play with fatigue because there is no other chance.
“For example, in two weeks we are going to play against Chelsea, before that we play Anderlecht [in the first leg of the Europa League quarter-final] and after we play Anderlecht [in the second leg].
“Chelsea before and after are on holidays. You can name their team, you can say this one, this one, this one, this one and this one. In 15 days’ time maybe the Premier League is not important for us, maybe it is. If we keep winning matches now that match against Chelsea is important for us. If we lose matches now that match is not important and the important matches are only Anderlecht.”
Will Rooney get a chance from bench to add to record today?
— Premier League (@premierleague) April 1, 2017
New face on United bench
While there's no place for Luke Shaw, Matty Willock does make the bench for the first time.
The midfielder has been introduced to the first-team picture following an injury to Juan Mata and suspension for Ander Herrera.
Willock said earlier this month in his first major interview at the club:
"When I was young, I always wanted to grow up and play for a big club. I didn’t think I was necessarily ever going to play for United so I am just happy to be here. If I keep working hard, hopefully I can push myself forward."
Wayne Rooney also returns to his cosy chair in the dug-out. United subs: Rooney, Blind, Romero, Fosu-Mensah, Darmian, Tuanzebe, Willock.
ACADEMY NEWS: Matty Willock becomes the 259th different youth team player to make the #mufc first team squad...
— The MUFC Academy (@mrmujac) April 1, 2017
Back to business
How do West Brom and Manchester United usually fare after an international break? We crunched the numbers to investigate.
Over the last five years of breaks in the action, West Brom have won just eight of their 23 fixtures played for a win percentage of 34.8.
United, meanwhile, have a far better return. They have collected 49 points from their last 22 games after an international period for a 68.2 win percentage. Only Manchester City and Chelsea have a stronger record.
And West Brom team news....
— West Bromwich Albion (@WBA) April 1, 2017
United team is out
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) April 1, 2017
Raring to go
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) April 1, 2017
What is it?
It's a 3pm British Summer Time kick off.
What TV channel is it on?
It's not, sadly. All 3pm matches can only be watched abroad because of a TV blackout in the UK.
What is the team news?
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones are among the absentees for Manchester United's Premier League clash with West Brom.
Ibrahimovic and Ander Herrera serve domestic bans at Old Trafford on Saturday, when midfielder Pogba will be absent with a hamstring injury.
Defenders Jones and Smalling were forced out of the England squad after sustaining what Jose Mourinho called "long-term injuries", but captain Wayne Rooney is available. Marouane Fellaini is a doubt.
Provisional squad: De Gea, Romero, Valencia, Fosu-Mensah, Tuanzebe, Rojo, Bailly, Blind, Darmian, Shaw, Young, Carrick, Fellaini, Mata, Lingard, Mkhitaryan, Rooney, Martial, Rashford.
Nacer Chadli is an injury concern for West Brom ahead of their trip to Old Trafford to face Manchester United.
The midfielder has returned from international duty with the Belgium squad nursing a shoulder injury and he will be assessed along with striker Salomon Rondon, who only linked back up with the Albion squad on Friday following his World Cup qualifying exploits with Venezuela.
Matt Phillips continues to struggle with a hamstring injury and he is likely to remain out.
Provisional squad: Foster, Myhill, Dawson, Nyom, McAuley, Kane Wilson, Marc Wilson, Evans, Galloway, Brunt, Fletcher, Field, Yacob, McClean, Chadli, Rondon, Robson-Kanu, Leko.
What are they saying?
Jose Mourinho on Bastian Schweinsteiger:
"Bastian is in the category of players that I feel sorry for something that I did to him," the Portuguese coach said. "I don't want to speak about him as a player. I don't want to speak about him as whether I would buy him or not to buy him. I want to speak about him as a professional.
"I want to speak about him as a human being and that was the last thing I told him before he left, 'I was not right with you once, I have to be right to you now.' So, when he was asking me to let him leave, I had to say, 'Yes, you can leave,' because I did it once, I cannot do it twice. So I feel sorry for the first period with him. He knows that."
"If you look at United's squad, in fact at all the top-six clubs, they have some fantastic players," said Pulis.
"They're able to compete in all major competitions this year because they've got strong squads, they haven't just got 11 players. They've got 25 players, all internationals.
"If Jose gets a few injuries he can replace them with experienced internationals who have cost a lot of money, it'll still be a top team."
What are the odds?
Man Utd win: 4/11
West Brom win - 10/1
Draw - 4/1
What's our prediction?
Manchester United should still have just enough to see off the Baggies, despite their injury crisis. 2-0.