Mata and Ibrahimovic make it six-in-a-row for Man United
José Mourinho’s side eventually grind down West Ham after Feghouli’s early red card
Juan Mata celebrates with a supporter after he gave Manchester United the lead against West Ham. Photograph: Epa/Hannah McKay yer publications
West Ham United 0 Manchester United 2
Manchester United’s winning run marched on into the new year at the London Stadium with a tight, lop-sided but still oddly inevitable 2-0 defeat of West Ham pegged out around two decisive moments. The first was a Mike Dean joint, the Premier League’s most theatrically interventionist referee choosing to send off Sofiane Feghouli with 13 minutes gone after a challenge with Phil Jones that saw both men tackle strongly but fairly.
With the match scoreless at half-time José Mourinho then intervened, demonstrating the muscle in this United squad by bringing on Juan Mata and Marcus Rashford, who combined for the opening goal. Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s second, lashed in from an offside position continued his own sublime run of form, a 12th goal in as many games that will no doubt once again have his critics, such as they are, eating their balls.
West Ham will feel hard done by after a game and well-drilled rearguard skewed by that early red card. But United continued to look like a team gathering some genuine momentum. Victory in a bitty game, 48 hours after their last, leaves them in sixth place, but playing here with a sense of strength in reserve.
There was a genuine stodginess to the early exchanges here on a chilly, clear, post-festive evening in east London. It was West Ham who brought the first waves of noise rolling around the distant ends of this vast open egg-shaped bowl, some slick interplay between Feghouli and Dimitri Payet putting Manuel Lanzini in space for a low shot that David De Gea plunged to palm wide.
With 14 minutes gone the key moment of the night arrived. Michail Antonio chested the ball back, Feghouli made an honest but not malicious attempt to reach the ball, as did Jones. Both men stretched. No studs were raised, although Jones came off slightly worse in the tangle. Mike Dean took his time then flourished – the word is apt – a straight red card. It was a poor decision, a referee interfering needlessly, and indeed ruinously in the flow of a match.
It was at the very least a mistake of Olympian scale, fitting the sweeping gestures, the imperial hauteur of the match official, a referee who clearly feels each football match he attends is a spectacle made up of three interlocking forces, Team A, Team B and Mike D.
The red card switched the flow of possession. United kept the ball in midfield as West Ham fell back into a hard-pressing 4-3-2 shape. Mourinho had made five changes here, with Anthony Martial rested and Jesse Lingaard coming in. In theory the front line retained its balance of speed and mobility either side of Ibrahimovic, but on this wide pitch, against a team down to nine outfield players, the absence of Martial suddenly seemed poignant. Havard Nordveit was a fill-in at right back but United barely troubled him in the opening half-hour.
They should have scored with 34 minutes gone though. Ibrahimovic played a crossfield pass to Henrikh Mkhitaryan. His cutback found Antonio Valencia in the middle, but his scuffed shot was straight at Darren Randolph, who scooped it away on the line. The ball then trickled to Jesse Lingard who somehow managed to hit the post, completing a horrible double miss. On the touchline Mourinho looked appalled, whirling around in search of someone to share his disgust before noticing the rest of his dugout were 50 metres behind him in the elbow joint of this ill-shaped arena.
West Ham pressed back, Lanzini’s curling shot drawing another nice clawing save from De Gea, after a jink and a pivot on the edge of the box. And a scoreless half-time came to the expected chorus of Mike Dean-related boos, only partly drowned out by an immediate blast of jarring and irrelevant music from the deafening stadium PA system.
Mourinho made the change at half-time that would prove decisive, bringing Carrick back into defence and sending on Mata for Matteo Darmian to lurk usefully just behind Ibrahimovic. Things continued to almost happen. Cheikhou Kouyaté escaped without a card after a horrible tackle on Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Antonio leapt prodigiously and almost got his head to Payet’s free-kick from the right touchline.
As United dominated possession around the edge of the West Ham box Mourinho brought on Rashford for Lingard, sticking him out on the far left touchline to finally test that weak right side. Still West Ham fought gamely, Lanzini keeping the ball brilliantly in tight spaces and just on the hour skittering forward to put Antonio in on goal with a lovely little through pass. De Gea saved with his legs, but Antonio had time and space to find a corner. He really should have scored.
West Ham were duly punished two minutes later with a goal made and scored by Mourinho’s two substitutes. Rashford ran at Nordveit, beat him twice, and laid back a neat little pass for Mata in space. His finish was instant and decisive, drawing a huge wave of pent-up relief from the away supporters.
United were cruising now as West Ham’s energy levels sagged a little. Paul Pogba picked up a loose Payet pass and shot just wide. Andy Carroll entered finally to test that rejigged back line and immediately drew a little barging panic from Jones. United held on and with 78 minutes gone Ibrahimovic lashed in their second, a goal that summed up both West Ham’s night and United’s sense of ominous momentum.