Manchester United are doing what is required: winning to ensure those chasing their second position do not gain ground, this edgy victory following third-place Leicester’s earlier win on Sunday.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s side were hardly a whir of irresistible football but they will not care. In squeezing Craig Dawson into forcing home past his keeper, Lukasz Fabianski, for the winner United also kept West Ham nine points behind them in fifth in the challenge for a Champions League berth – their absolute minimum requirement.
Solskjær was able to select Marcus Rashford after he had been an injury concern. This was good news as Anthony Martial and Edinson Cavani, two other frontline forwards, were not available with their own maladies.
David Moyes was forced to leave the in-form Jesse Lingard out because of his status as a United loanee, but he could be pleased with an opening that had his side pressuring United deep in their territory. This culminated in a corner won on the left by Michail Antonio via a cross that was deflected out by Victor Lindelof.
Mark Noble swung this in to the far post, then Aaron Wan-Bissaka fell, as did Craig Dawson, in a mini-pileup of players, but the referee, Martin Atkinson, saw nothing foul.
United’s response was to dominate the rest of the half. First came a measured sequence in which Rashford moved along a right channel and fed Mason Greenwood and when he tapped inside the ball went left. Luke Shaw received it, rolled over a cross and there was Greenwood to attempt a back-heel. Fabianski gathered up.
When Moyes’s side are on song the ball is struck with a tempo and direction that moves them quickly upfield. United’s remedy for this was simple: hog possession and thus pin their opponents back.
Twice, though, when Greenwood received inside the Hammers’ half, loose distribution gave the ball to the visitors – a fault that was later repeated by Wan-Bissaka, moving Harry Maguire, the captain, to inform his side in colourful diction to “tidy up”. They did. Shaw claimed a corner he took himself from the left, Maguire headed this to no avail, and United were pushed back. But they had become a smoother unit.
Next, Bruno Fernandes showed a touch of class, feinting to shoot as Antonio closed him down, then using the yard he gained to turn inside. This came to nothing, as did his next offering, which was to feed Greenwood along the right: his chip teed up Rashford with a free header but the forward froze and his effort was feeble.
This had, though, become a contest of United’s attack versus West Ham’s defence. Greenwood’s footwork sundered the latter and a menacing cross deserved a finish from a teammate that was absent as Dawson and Fabianski cleaned up. Next, Rashford flipped a pass behind Dawson that put Shaw in close to goal on the byline. Again West Ham escaped, but here was further encouragement that United could break down banked resistance.
Greenwood is impossible to handle when racing in as he did after Fernandes passed to him. The centre‑forward’s twist-then-shot was heading for Fabianski’s right-hand corner before he tipped it on to the post. Greenwood was distraught, yet West Ham were wobbling.
Lacking was a killer touch, as when Dan James fired in a cross at the second half’s start that went across the area but had no United man to turn home.
Copious possession means nothing if it fails to yield goals and there is also the danger of being sucker-punched on the counter, though West Ham’s lack of ambition was tempering this.
Given their position, Moyes may have plotted for a draw but if so he soon required a rethink. After Greenwood’s cross was stabbed out by Vladimir Coufal, Fernandes pinged in the corner from the left. Scott McTominay rose, as did Dawson, who was closely attended by Maguire: the centre‑back’s header was a classic own-goal, coming as Dawson tried to clear but managing only to beat Fabianski with unwanted ease.
West Ham’s initial riposte came via a penalty shout when Tomas Soucek was challenged by Maguire, but Atkinson awarded a goal-kick. At the other end Fernandes’s 20-yard effort was kept out by a strong Fabianski palm.
The closing phase was about United’s game-management. West Ham probed – Coufal smacked a cross in, Shaw blocked a Soucek effort – but Greenwood went close to a second when he hit Fabianski’s right post. By the end, United could rightfully think that while it was not pretty the win was deserved.