Manchester United versus West Ham
This past Saturday, Manchester United played West Ham United and it was everything but the smooth-sailing, easy victory that the Red Devils' fans would expect. It was yet another game beginning with several questions for Manchester United. Could a young backline hold their mettle against the competition, which again was not top of the table caliber? Would the extremely attacking front of Robin Van Persie, Radamel Falcao, and Wayne Rooney lead to oodles of goals and the team's second victory of the 2014 season? Can Wayne Rooney prove himself a better, more resourceful captain than the blamer he seemed to be in their previous defeat? Above all, the most important question became, could they rebound from last week's loss and earn three league points with a win? The answer was yes, but it was delivered rather sheepishly, as United eked out a 2-1 win victory.
Louis Van Gaal's starting line up featured the more favored 4-4-2 fromation, deploying a back four comprised of Luke Shaw, at left back, Marcos Rojo, left center back, Paddy McNair, making his debut at right center back, and Rafael, at his accustomed right back position. Midfield featured Ángel Di María, playing left midfielder, Daley Blind, center defensive midfielder, Ander Herrera at right midfielder, and Wayne Rooney at center attacking midfielder, supporting Radamel Falcao and Robin van Persie at the center forward positions. David De Gea started at net minder yet again.
The first half was dominated by Manchester as they adopted an attacking persona early and maintained strong possession throughout the first half. An early free kick earned by Di María, nearly led to a chance for Radamel Falcao, as a Wayne Rooney pass barely eluded the striker's head and crossed the entire goal face untouched. Di María drew another early foul, the second drawn on Alex Song, which prompted a caution and early yellow card from match official, Lee Mason. In the 5th minute, a goal for United, as Rooney used a world-class touch to volley the ball back post on a cross from Rafael, after the defender's excellent 60 yard run. Later, in the 22nd minute, after a tackle by Ander Herrera, Falcao played Robin Van Persie through on a one on one break with a West Ham defender. With three deft touches, the Dutchman earned the space he needed and scored a goal, finishing far post with his weaker foot. The goal gave Van Persie his first in this year's campaign.
In the 34th minute, Di María had an open shot, which he struck wide, in a chance that seemed everything but difficult, could have brought the score to 3-0, and decided the game early. It seemed to be all Manchester United. However, West Ham struck back in the 37th minute, West Ham scored a goal off a corner kick, which many predicted would give them trouble. Diafra Sahko directed the header into a wide-open goal after a goal line save by Robin Van Persie. The real source of the goal came from a poor decision made by David De Gea, as he left his line without any chance of saving the initial ball crossed into his six-yard box. He truly was nowhere close, and the goal begs to question, how much Manchester United bolsters their competition through their own poor play and decision-making.
United responded to the goal well, immediately returning to the attack, but their efforts, which produced a few chances, were mostly fruitless. Di María played his worst game so far as Red Devil, earning no goals or assists, but still dictating the pace of United's attack down the left flank and demanding tremendous attention from West Ham's defense. With the score at 2-1 and possession, convincingly, in United favor, the game now remained up for grabs, as West Ham continued to try the United backline. However, while the defense may have bent at times, it did not break; the young defenders, aided by spectacular saves from De Gea, continued to repel West Ham's chances.
In the 59th minute, disaster struck Manchester United, and many would say stupidity as well. Rooney committed a reckless, idiotic, everything but necessary foul on West Ham's Stuart Downing. He lashed out violently, kicking at Downing, away from the ball, which prompted a red card, an immediate sending off, and a three-match suspension. The challenged followed a non-decision from Lee Mason on a handball in West Ham's box and revealed Rooney's frustration with the referee's inaction. Rooney's red card forced United to play the remaining thirty minutes of the match down a man. The foul committed within Manchester's attacking third might have become the harbinger of doom for United's defense if it weren't for the increased attention from United's backline and increased effort of the remaining midfield and attacking players.
In the 65th, vice-captain Darren Fletcher replaced Falcao, who was disappointed to be substituted. The substitution added an increased defensive dimension to the Red Devils, playing with only ten men. Fletcher nestled in as a second center defensive midfielder, supporting Blind, who'd performed admirably in the game so far. Manchester United's defending was nervous, following Rooney's red card, but remained solid.
Sakho's yellow card in the 72nd minute provided a great example of a professional foul in soccer, paling far in comparison to the intensity and violence of the challenge leading to Wayne Rooney's red card. It generated several appeals from United defenders, who were hoping that the head referee would level the man advantage by sending him off.
There was a slight injury scare in the 74th minute with Ander Herrera, who grimaced with some back pain. Antonio Valencia replaced the midfielder with fresh legs and more experience playing defense. The nineteen year-old, Paddy McNair, performed extremely well throughout his debut adding stability and calm to the backline. In the 82nd minute, in a moment of brilliance, he performed a diving header, playing the ball backwards out of harm's way. He even played through some hamstring tightness.
In the 89th minute, there was a momentary cause for alarm. Kevin Nolan, a substitute for West Ham, seemingly tied the game, but his position actually drew an offside flag from the linesman. A close look at the replay made linesman's decision valid, as he leaned past the last defender Marcos Rojo when the cross was made.
In extra time, United was able to consume time well, as West Ham goalkeeper Adrian played a back pass about to leave play with his hands earning a yellow card. Di Maria milked the clock for all its worth, when he resumed play on the free kick. Van Gaal also made a great managerial decision, saving his final substitution for the extra time period, as he subbed Ángel Di Maria for Tom Thorpe, a third Man United debut.
United, most importantly, earned the three points, but a tough October month approaches without their captain. Rooney will be banned and unable to join the team throughout the month of October, when they face off against stiff competition in Everton, West Bromwich Albion, and notable league title contenders, Chelsea. The captain faced much scrutiny for his actions - his first red card in five seasons at Manchester United - but more importantly, the behavior you least expect of a perennial starting player, especially your team captain. The team will be hard pressed to replace him. Expect Juan Mata and Adnan Januzaj to play important roles in the place of the suspended captain. Herrera will find himself unable to play due to a fractured rib that he sustained in the game; in fact, he will be sidelined for at least a month. The backline could possibly be aided by the return of Phil Jones. Tyler Blackett will return from suspension as well, but United will feel less troubled about their defense given the strong performance of a young Paddy McNair. United play Everton on Sunday, October 5th at 12:00 EST.