Marcus Rashford’s second-half introduction broke the resistance of ten-man West Ham United by adding a different dimension to a typically congested Manchester United attack.
Despite employing the same narrow 4-1-4-1 interpretation as his opposite number Jose Mourinho, Slaven Bilic’s side carried a far greater threat than their leaden-footed visitors in the opening 15 minutes.
Prior to Sofiane Feghouli’s game-changing — and extremely harsh — dismissal, the Hammers were firmly in the ascendancy, denying space to the likes of Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Jesse Lingard with a high defensive line, and using that compactness to transfer the ball quickly into attack at turnovers.
Dmitri Payet looked the most likely of the four inward-drifting wide players on the pitch to create something, and it was the Frenchman who took advantage of United’s relative lack of compactness to draw Michael Carrick and create an early half-chance for a free Manuel Lanzini.
West Ham hopes of upturning the form-book appeared to be extinguished by the first of several clangers dropped by referee Mike Dean however, forcing Bilic to reorganise his troops into a 4-4-1-0 shape, with Lanzini asked to shuttle between centre-forward and central midfield.
But, with the Argentinian staying goalside of Michael Carrick, and Mourinho proving strangely reluctant to encourage his full-backs to advance and provide much-needed width, the Hammers rearguard remained surprisingly comfortable for the remainder of the first-half — save, of course, for that incredible Antonio Valencia/Lingard double-miss.
At left-back, returning to the side in place of Daley Blind, the right-footed Matteo Darmian was understandably less effective in attack than the Ecuadorian on the opposite flank, and it was the Italian who was sacrificed by Mourinho at half-time in favour of Juan Mata.
This switch was designed to effect three positive changes to United’s attacking play: (a) the left-footed Marcos Rojo moved from centre-back to fill Darmian’s boots, adding balance to the United attack; (b) Carrick moved back into Rojo’s prior role, theoretically ensuring that United’s previously one-paced possession football would be ignited by more incisive passing from the back; and (c) Mata offers far more creativity playing on the same line as Paul Pogba than Carrick’s holding-role replacement, the dogged Ander Herrera.
That defensive reshuffle very nearly backfired on Mourinho on the hour-mark however, when Rojo’s errant pass out of defence allowed Lanzini to tee up Michail Antonio for a criminally wasted clear-cut chance, as the Argentinian and Valencia failed to notice that Carrick and Phil Jones had pushed up to catch the eight-goal winger offside.
Ultimately, it was the change the Portuguese made two minutes before that let-off that turned the game in his favour, as Rashford became the first wide player to beat their full-back on the outside, skinning the sluggish Havard Nordtveit to tee up Mata to score.
By no means a conventional winger, Rashford’s lightning pace and directness was exactly what United needed to add variety to a narrow attack, that has frequently suffered from the tendencies of Mourinho’s preferred wide players to drift infield. Suddenly, a previously cosy West Ham back four had something to stretch — and worry — it.
Although it initially appeared an unnecessarily negative gambit against ten men, Mourinho’s next change — the introduction of centre-back Chris Smalling in place of the ineffectual Mkhitaryan — proved just as shrewd when Andy Carroll trundled onto the pitch three minutes later. Pitting Carrick, who duly moved back into the holding role, against the former Liverpool target man’s aerial prowess would have been something of a mismatch, to say the least.
Rashford continued to haunt Nordtveit and make his point to Mourinho, running in behind the Norwegian in the 75th minute to pull-back for Pogba’s near-miss, and earning the full-back a long-overdue booking in the final minute of normal time.
While Dean’s incompetence, Antonio’s miss, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s offside insurance goal all conspired to create a justifiable sense of injustice on West Ham’s part, this was Rashford’s evening.
November 19’s 1-1 draw with Arsenal, during which the teenager’s failure to stop Oxlade-Chamberlain’s cross cost United a then much-needed victory may live long in the memory of the defensively-minded Mourinho – who has only handed Rashford one Premier League start since that day – but cameos like this one will surely eventually force his hand.