Daley Blind superbly guided in his first goal for Manchester United to salvage a 2-2 draw with West Brom at the Hawthorns. The summer signing from Ajax struck with just three minutes of normal time remaining to peg the hosts back for the second time in an engaging Monday-night contest featuring a quartet of high-quality finishes.
After Stephane Sessegnon put West Brom ahead early on with an unstoppable strike, Marouane Fellaini equalized with an effort of equal venom to get his first goal for the club just three minutes after coming on at halftime. At that point all the momentum was with the visitors as they piled the pressure on the West Brom defense. But another defensive mishap of the type that has characterized the early reign of Louis van Gaal allowed Saido Berahino to race clear and coolly slot home. United fought back but despite threatening to add to their equalizer remain without a win away from home under their new manager.
It means that, instead of rising to fourth, Manchester United remain in sixth ahead of Van Gaal’s most testing fixtures to date against Chelsea and Manchester City in the next two weeks. In a match that marked three months in charge for the Dutchman, there was again plenty to encourage from his side going forward. But the overriding feeling will surely be one of frustration, as the defensive balance remained elusive and an attainable extra two points were allowed to go begging.
Much credit, though, must also go to West Brom, who counter-attacked with purpose to take advantage of their opponents’ failings. Three months after Alan Irvine took over at the Hawthorns to much skepticism from his new club’s supporters and beyond, West Brom have recovered from a slow start to sit a respectable 14th. And they began the better of two sides on Monday. Van Gaal threw in a surprise by starting with Radamel Falcao on the bench following the Colombian’s international exertions in the United States and abandoned a two-man strike force to instead field a 4-3-3 for the first time.
Some of the problems with the setup were laid bare after just eight minutes. United were badly exposed down the left when Angel di Maria switched off and Luke Shaw over-committed on halfway to allow Andre Wisdom to race clear. When the full-back on loan from Liverpool squared across the edge of the box, Sessegnon still had much to do, but the sometimes brilliant, other times deeply frustrating attacking midfielder, met the ball with a first-time strike into the top corner.
United responded and, with a strategy that relied in the early going on a number of direct balls in behind the West Brom defense, tested backup goalkeeper Boaz Myhill through Robin van Persie and twice the man who was again the team’s most threatening player, Di Maria. Van Persie forced another save when he capitalized on an error from Joleon Lescott, but it was Van Gaal’s halftime adjustment that brought his side level.
Fellaini has had a torrid time since arriving for £27.5 million form Everton 14 months ago and subsequently becoming a symbol of the decline in style and performances under David Moyes. But on this occasion he had a major positive impact immediately after replacing Ander Herrera. The Belgian got the benefit of the doubt from the referee for a slight push on Lescott on the edge of the box, but that should take nothing away from what followed. Having once again demonstrated his rare ability controlling the ball with his chest, Fellaini showed some ample ability with his feet, too, shifting the ball superbly to his right to take out a defender and then holding nothing back with a rasping drive into the roof of the net.
With West Brom now defending deeper, United used Fellaini as a weapon for an increasing number of crosses into the middle. It almost paid dividends once more when he came close to heading in a cross from first-time starter this season Adnan Januzaj, while Rafael’s square ball across the face of goal just failed to get a touch into the net. There only looked one winner at that stage. Yet United’s problems at the other end costly resurfaced.
Despite the system shift, United’s midfield remains undermanned defensively with Blind lacking the athleticism to do the job of two men as he is seemingly being asked. That was evident when Phil Jones stepped up to cover the vacancy in the middle, Marco Rojo failed to move across and Rafael was caught yards behind to enable an onside Beahino to hare in on De Gea and get his sixth goal of the season.
The visitors rallied late on, helped by the introduction of Falcao. And after Van Persie struck the post with a well-struck volley on his right foot, another Dutchman pulled them level. Blind’s strike from 20 yards was measured to perfection but it couldn’t spur on a once trademark late United salvo to get all three points.