A month ago Manchester United went top of the table, since when they have looked anything but possible champions. Two wins in seven games means the gap to Manchester City is seven points – with United having played a game more – but this is about more than just numbers: United simply do not look like a team with the fluency to put together the sort of run that could apply pressure.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær insisted that United have not given up on the title, but he did not sound especially convincing. “No one will give it away this early,” he said. “No one knows this season – it’s so unpredictable, life is unpredictable, anything could happen. We’re not going to settle for second.”
The worry, though, is that this was not unpredictable. The question about Solskjær throughout his tenure has been about whether he can organise cohesive attacking plans. “Sometimes we played a little bit too slow,” said Harry Maguire. “In the second half we played with a little bit more tempo and on another day we’d have scored two or three goals and it’s a different story. We created enough chances to win the game. When you’re playing such a deep block, the chances don’t come. You’re never going to come here and create 10 clearcut chances. When they come they’re big moments: you’ve got to take them and obviously we’ve shot ourselves in the foot by conceding early and it’s made it difficult for ourselves.”
But that’s to suggest this was a one off when this sluggishness is a habitual problem. There is enough quality in this side to mean it often does not matter, but the bluntness that has meant they have scored only once in six games against the “big six” this season, that undermined them in the defeat to Sheffield United, was in evidence again.
With no Paul Pogba to drive forward from deep, Maguire’s forward surges were almost United’s only source of creativity in the first half. West Brom were unlikely to have been particularly expansive anyway, but since they had gone ahead when Mbaye Diagne outmuscled Victor Lindelöf to head in Conor Gallagher’s looping cross, they sat extremely deep. Okay Yokuslu, making his first start, was impressive just in front of the back four.
Once again, United were reliant on the individual brilliance of Bruno Fernandes to spark them into life. He was largely quiet, but just before half-time he marked Friday’s 10th anniversary of Wayne Rooney’s overhead winner against Manchester City with a sweetly shinned volley of his own.
At that point it seemed United might, for the eighth time this season, come from behind to win an away league game. They would have done, had Sam Johnstone not made a remarkable save in the final minute of injury time, touching a Maguire header against the post. But there was no protracted siege of the West Brom goal and Diagne missed two very presentable opportunities in the final quarter of an hour, which was enough for Sam Allardyce to claim he was a little disappointed with the draw.
January signings were the key to his salvage job at Sunderland, and they look likely to be vital again. “I see a squad of players that are getting better,” Allardyce said, “a squad of players that if they apply themselves at that level between now and end of season they give themselves every chance.”
That’s perhaps a generous reading of the situation, given the gap to safety is 12 points, one fewer than West Brom have picked up all season, but as they head into a run in which they face Burnley, Brighton, Newcastle and Crystal Palace in successive games, there is at least the semblance of a plan and something to build from. If Allardyce is to maintain his boast of having never been relegated from the Premier League, though, it would be his most spectacular rescue mission yet.
United, meanwhile, plod on. There was chuntering about VAR after a penalty given for a foul on Maguire was overturned, although he seemed offside anyway. Even Maguire acknowledged that VAR is too easy an excuse.
“It seems like the decisions at the moment are going against us,” he said, “but we’ve got to do more to win the game. We can’t be relying on VAR decisions. We huffed and puffed and created chances but we’ve still got to improve.”
For this season, despite all the brave talk, it is surely too late.