There have only been two occasions in Manchester United’s illustrious history when they have failed to win any of their opening five home matches of a league season. Fortunately for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, his side managed to avoid making it an ignominious third but only after a retaken penalty ended a near five and a half hour league goal drought at Old Trafford and West Bromwich Albion had a penalty award of their own controversially overturned.
Bruno Fernandes’s initial penalty had been saved by Sam Johnstone but the West Bromwich Albion goalkeeper and former United trainee was off his line as he dived down low to his left to keep the ball out and, as such, the Portugal midfielder was presented with an opportunity to atone. Much as he had done in similar circumstances against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League last month, Fernandes made no mistake from his second attempt.
It was not the only penalty drama involving Fernandes on the night, though - or one that West Brom came out worse off from. Conor Gallagher thought he had won his side a penalty after tumbling under a challenge from Fernandes. David Coote pointed to the penalty spot but, from the subsequent VAR review, the referee trundled over to the pitchside monitor to look at the incident again and overturned his decision. Already dismayed that United’s penalty had been allowed to stand after a foul by Fred on Gallagher before Darnell Furlong handled Juan Mata’s cross, Slaven Bilic struggled to conceal his anger at Coote’s decision to renege on his original call.
“I’m really disappointed with the decision,” Bilic said. “Throughout the whole of the second half, I felt like a small West Brom. All those crucial decisions went against us. I’ve watched it a few times now and for me it’s a clear penalty on Conor Gallagher. I don’t understand why he overturned that.
“Their penalty, it’s a handball, it’s a bit unlucky but under the new rules, it’s handball. But before the handball it was a clear foul on Conor Gallagher. So instead of 1-0 for us, it’s 1-0 for them and against Man United away it’s a huge difference, it’s crucial, it’s game over.”
Even Solskjaer admitted United had been fortunate West Brom’s penalty was overturned. “We may be a tad lucky but maybe the rules are different to how I interpret them,” the United manager said.
Victory moved United into ninth, above Manchester City, while West Brom remain marooned in the bottom three without a win after nine games. Yet while Bilic’s side were indebted in part to Johnstone, who made good saves to deny Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Harry Maguire, and United’s wastefulness, they deserved something from the game.
United have scored just once from open play at Old Trafford in the league this term - in their opening defeat to Crystal Palace - and Fernandes’ penalty was their first home goal in the competition for five hours and 24 minutes since his spot-kick against Spurs, after which the floodgates opened. That 6-1 trouncing really seems to have scarred United, certainly at home.
Given how West Brom cut through them on occasion, Solskjaer may argue that he was right to start with two defensive minded midfielders in Fred and Nemanja Matic but this felt like an occasion when United should have let loose. Instead, after Martial missed an excellent chance to open the scoring in the 16th minute after a fine move on the turnover, United struggled for any real rhythm in attack and the game followed a familiar pattern. It just looks hard work for this team going forward at times.
“It’s important to get the first win at home, a lot has been about it, written about it and you could see at the end we were a bit edgy,” Solskjaer said. “We should have probably scored a couple more to make it an easier finish but at 1-0 you’re never sure and it’s a tight call both ways.
“The league this season is going to be ups and downs, and inconsistent, unpredictable, we’ve seen some results today. The league is not really settling. It’s very tight. Points are more important than performances sometimes.”
It would have been interesting to see how United had reacted had Coote stood by his original penalty award. Karlan Grant had got round the outside of Maguire, darted forward and slipped the ball to Gallagher, who dropped to the ground under a challenge from Fernandes. The latter got the ball first but also the man and protested forcibly to Coote after the referee pointed to the spot. Was that in Coote’s mind when he went to review the decision? Perhaps, but it was a big call all the same.
West Brom were undeterred, though, and should have taken the lead soon after. Furlong’s cross sailed unchallenged from right to left, all the way into the feet of Conor Townsend, who had just David De Gea to beat. It was a glorious chance and, while he struck his shot well, it was close enough to the United goalkeeper to save with his outstretched left boot.
A vital intervention and one West Brom would have added cause to bemoan moments later when United headed down the other end and Mata’s intended cross was handled by Furlong. The West Brom defender was looking away from the ball and did not know much about it - similar, really, to the penalty Joe Gomez conceded for Liverpool against Manchester City this month - but under the current rules it was the right decision. That said, Fred had fouled Gallagher in the build-up - an infringement both Coote and VAR missed.
Fernandes was relieved to get a second bite at the cherry after Johnstone saved his first penalty. West Brom kept coming, though, and very nearly equalised, in no small part thanks to Bilic’s two substitute, Hal Robson-Kanu and Callum Robinson. Robson-Kanu turned neatly in the middle and sprayed a pass out to Gallagher, who laid the ball off to Robinson. His shot whistled over De Gea but cannoned back off the crossbar. Yet more misfortune for the visiting side.
65 minutes: Man Utd 1 West Brom 0
What a stunning introduction to the game from Robinson. Gallagher leading the West Brom charge again, he sets the pass back to Robinson who goes for the curler from the left corner of the box, around 25 yards out, and the ball cannons off the bar with De Gea beaten.
PENALTY WEST BROM!
Well, well. West Brom get in behind Maguire and for a moment it looked like he might give a penalty away on Grant, but the West Brom forward stayed up and picked out Gallgher with a pass. Fernandes was scrambling back and looked to wrap him on the shin.
The referee is looking at the monitor...it was hard to see if Fernandes got a nick on the ball before touching Gallagher. Marginal.
36 minutes: Man Utd 0 West Brom 0
Quick feet from Martial to evade a few West Brom tackles and his shot from 25 yards or so deflects behind for a corner. These are big moments for West Brom who have done so well up until now...Maguire looked to have shoved Ivanovic before belting a shot straight in Bartley's mush from point-blank range. Fortunately, the West Brom defender is back on his feet.
17 minutes: Man Utd 0 West Brom 0
United getting closer. After a good spell of West Brom possession Ajayi played the ball straight to Maguire who fed Rashford on the counter-attack. He picked out Fernandes who was all alone in the box, and he teed up Martial with a first-time lay off. Martial directed his shot on target but Johnstone got down well to his left to keep it out.
10 minutes: Man Utd 0 West Brom 0
Rashford tried to float a cross in for Fernandes but there was too much on it and West Brom have a goal kick. Mata wants too many touches on the right wing and Diangana sticks to his task well. Ajayi then nips in to win the ball ahead of Rashford.
West Brom get the chance to enjoy some possession in the United half but the move breaks down with Grant.
2 minutes: Man Utd 0 West Brom 0
Looks to me like West Brom are shaping up in a 5-3-2 with Grant and Diangana up top. Bartley, Ivanovic and Ajayi as the three centre-backs. Bartley gives away a foul on the right and it nearly proves costly: Martial won a flicked header at the near post and Johnstone made a diving save to his right to claw it away.
What an incentive for United
Man City have just lost at Spurs so United can jump above them in the table if they take all three points tonight. That is quite remarkable given the doom and gloom around the club in the last few months.
Pogba was not spotted at the team hotel this afternoon so bis absence is not a surprise. What is a surprise is the inclusion of Matic over McTominay.
Can United put an end to their wretched home form?
The vultures were circling around Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Manchester United before their trip to Everton, but they managed to pull a result out of the fire and Solskjaer needs that game to be a line in the sand.
United are yet to win a Premier League game at Old Trafford this season, failing to score against Chelsea and Arsenal, and they will not get many more presentable chances than a fixture against West Bromwich Albion. Slaven Bilic's team have scored one goal in their last five league games, have the lowest expected goals tally in the league and the second-highest expected goals conceded total. Not the ideal combination, then.
Solskjaer is hopeful of having Marcus Rashford fit despite reports of a shoulder injury troubling him. Alex Telles could be available, but Victor Lindelof's ongoing back problem and Mason Greenwood's recent illness puts their involvement in doubt. All eyes will be on what Solskjaer does in central midfield, with Paul Pogba and Donny van De Beek struggling to nail down regular spots. A brief flirtation with a midfield diamond looks to have been abandoned.
West Brom have some Covid-19 absences to contend with, including their key creative outlet last season Matheus Pereira. Since Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement though, West Brom have recorded three wins at Old Trafford.
“As a club, recently, we’ve been doing really good at Old Trafford." Bilic said. "Last four or five times. I have a pretty good record, considering it’s Man United, with West Ham.
“Every game is difficult, especially for us because we’re newcomers. But this is still Man United away. If you see their roster, it’s massive.
“It’s also a big opportunity for us, but first we have to do what we did against Spurs and against a few others - to make it hard, to try and penetrate, to keep the ball, to be resilient, to have numbers behind the ball when needed and to keep them far from our box.
“That’s our plan, whoever we play against. We know what they have in their locker. We know they have pace, quality, they can score from midfield.
“We have to be on top of our game, but we’re ready."
Team news on the way shortly.