Football Features

Bruno Fernandes on Messi’s heels but Man Utd denied eighth comeback win of the season v West Brom

By Mohamed Moallim

Published: 16:40, 14 February 2021

Manchester United were left to rue dropping points in the Premier League again  as they were held to a 1-1 draw at relegation-threatened West Brom this afternoon.

Their pursuit of an unlikely 21st championship is now all but up in smoke, with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men looking behind them as they seek to secure a runners-up spot (assuming Manchester City do indeed break off and secure a third crown in four seasons).

Mbaye Diagne, who swapped Istanbul for England last month, gave Sam Allardyce’s side the perfect start before United’s main man Bruno Fernandes brought a semblance of normality back to the proceedings, but they couldn’t find that elusive second goal.

As the dust begins to settle, here are five things we learned from this encounter.

1. Fast start

If the Red Devils imagined today was going to be a stroll in the park, they were given a rude awakening straight from the off. West Brom’s lowly position, coupled with some recent disappointing performances, suggested Sam Allardyce’s men were there for the taking but it was the Baggies who sensationally broke the deadlock. Straight on the front foot, as their manager surely demanded, Man Utd were pegged back and, just when it seemed everything was under control, an innocuous Conor Gallagher ball was played into the penalty area.

It was ultimately met by Mbaye Diagne, who headed home his first Premier League goal since joining on loan from Galatasaray — where he registered 19 goals across 30 league appearances — last month. That effort, which Victor Lindelöf should have defended better on second inspection, came with just two minutes on the clock. This subsequently happened to be West Brom’s earliest in England’s top division since February 2015 when Saido Berahino (remember him?) netted after one minute and 12 seconds against Southampton. Also, with Diagne’s strike timed at 83 seconds, it’s the fastest Premier League goal conceded by United since Christian Eriksen’s found the net after 11 seconds for Tottenham in January 2018.

2. Penny for Southgate’s thoughts

Once this domestic season concludes we’ll be on the road to Euro 2021, where England will undoubtedly be among the favourites. It’s too early to discuss whether 55 years of hurt ends this summer as the immediate focus and conversation is on the makeup of Gareth Southgate’s first eleven. Jack Grealish, Phil Foden and James Maddison are making a strong case to be included and so is Luke Shaw, who for a while seemed a lost cause. His time at Man Utd, following a big move from boyhood club Southampton, has been dominated by injuries and false starts. Shaw’s last international appearance was a 53 minute involvement against Spain in 2018, before that a seven-minute cameo in a March 2017 loss at Germany.

Ben Chilwell seemingly has England’s left-back spot lock down but there’s no ignoring Shaw’s recent form. He’s now provided four assists in United’s last three Premier League outings; the 25-year-old full-back is as mobile as ever with him predominantly stationed in the opposition final third. Such attacking swagger has undeniably benefitted Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men going forward and it could serve the same for Southgate, who is no doubt already planning for the Three Lions upcoming 2022 World Cup qualifying games against San Marino, Albania and Poland. It’s hard to imagine Shaw not being involved considering the way he’s turned his career around.

3. Halfway to a century

During their period of dominance under Sir Alex Ferguson, no team was more relentless going forward than Man Utd, who have seemingly gone back to ‘attack, attack, attack’ mode under club legend Solskjaer, as heading into this weekend they’ve registered the most Premier League goals. Their impressive tally increased on the stroke of half-time when talismanic figure Bruno Fernandes levelled proceedings. His spectacular volley meant United notched up 50 strikes for the season.

To do so in 24 or fewer games is historic for another reason. Never before in the post-Ferguson era had the Red Devils reached a half-century this quick. Their final campaign (2012/13) under the Glaswegian tactician saw them achieve that milestone in 20 outings. Rekindling those glory days seem a while away but there’s no question the foundations have been established. It’s whether they’re able to grow around Fernandes, whose acquisition undoubtedly represents United’s best since their legendary boss stepped down in 2013.

4. Brilliant Bruno

Speaking of Fernandes, we are starting to run out of superlatives. He could have joined Man Utd before the 2019/20 started but an unwillingness to match Sporting’s asking price meant a transfer never materialised. The 26-year-old eventually joined several months later and to say the Portuguese attacking midfielder hasn’t looked back is a gross understatement. He more than anyone can be deemed responsible for the changing of their fortunes.

Since making his Premier League debut, only the irresistible Lionel Messi and Robert Lewandowski (both on 44) have been directly involved in more goals and assists combined across Europe’s traditional big five leagues than United’s lynchpin (38). Fernandes’ equaliser — which had shades of Wayne Rooney’s ridiculous effort against Manchester City on this day 10 years ago — was his 22nd strike in a Red Devils jersey. If we just focus on United only Andy Cole (33 goals & 13 assists) has been involved in more Premier League goals for England’s most successful league club after his first 38 league appearances for them.

5. Undisputed kings of recovery

A point will undoubtedly feel like two dropped by Man Utd but at least it wasn’t another loss to a side in the relegation zone. That being said, defeat was a possibility. Diagne was amazingly denied by David De Gea, which proved to be the second half’s best opportunity until the final seconds when Harry Maguire saw a headed effort crash off the post following a sensational fingertip save. If that had snuck past Sam Johnstone, then it would have been their eighth comeback win this season.

The mere fact they came back and secured a result is a further testament to the never-say-die attitude instilled by their manager. United have now gained 21 points from losing positions, which is nearly double the league’s second best total (12) when it comes to recovering and that’s currently held by Leicester City, who came from behind to beat Liverpool a day earlier. Interestingly, both clubs are level on points (46), and they meet in a month’s time with second place potentially on the line.