THERE was a touch of the old Manchester United about their ability to score late on and salvage something from a thrilling game that had looked to be slipping through their fingers, yet it was hard to escape the feeling that this was another unsatisfactory evening for Louis van Gaal and his players.
United provided evidence of their powers of recovery by twice coming from behind to peg back a courageous Albion team but, once again, it was impossible to ignore their weaknesses in defence. The broader picture shows that they have only one point more on the board than they did at the same stage last season, by which point David Moyes had come up against Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City.
Van Gaal, in contrast, could hardly have wished for a more benign start to the season. The serious business is about to begin. United face Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal in three of their next four games and there will need to be a major improvement in their defending if they are to come through that run unscathed.
Van Gaal has yet to win away from home â€“ for the first time in 18 years United have gone six Premier League games without a victory on their travels â€“ and with all due respect to their opponents on the road so far, MK Dons, Burnley, Sunderland, Leicester and West Bromwich Albion, they are not exactly world-beaters.
The bottom line is that United look vulnerable at the back and until Van Gaal addresses their shortcomings in that department teams such as West Bromwich will fancy their chances. The opening goal was a case in point, as Albion exploited the space that opened up behind Luke Shaw and took the lead through a wonderful goal from StÃ©phane SessÃ¨gnon. As for Albionâ€™s second goal, Rafael da Silva played Saido Berahino onside and the Albion striker strengthened his case for a full England call-up with a composed finish that took his tally for the season to an impressive seven.
In between those two fine Albion goals, Marouane Fellaini opened his United account with another goal of the highest quality. On for Ander Herrera at the interval, the Belgian made an impact within three minutes when he thundered an unstoppable shot inside Boaz Myhillâ€™s near post and into the top corner. Long overdue â€“ this was Fellainiâ€™s 24th appearance for United â€“ but it was not a bad way to get off the mark. United were buoyant at that stage but Berahinoâ€™s breakaway goal turned the game on its head again.
Van Gaal introduced Radamel Falcao, who had started on the bench because he was suffering from jet leg after returning from playing for Colombia in Canada on Friday, and United cranked up the pressure. A penalty appeal was turned down when SÃ©bastien Pocognoli unwittingly handled, and Robin van Persie hit an upright before Daley Blind, with a beautifully placed shot from 20 yards, hauled United level.
It was no more than United deserved on the balance of play â€“ they enjoyed 63% of possession and had 22 shots to Albionâ€™s eight â€“ but it was also easy to understand why Alan Irvineâ€™s players looked so crestfallen at the final whistle. They were dangerous on the counter-attack, worked tirelessly, defended resolutely and had come agonisingly close to picking up a famous victory.
The evening could not have got off to a better start for the home team. There appeared little danger when Myhill, making a rare appearance after Ben Foster injured a calf in training, hurriedly cleared upfield, but Graham Dorrans, getting in front of Shaw, deliciously flicked the ball round the corner to release the marauding Andre Wisdom.
With Angel Di MarÃa caught upfield and Shaw now out of the game, Wisdom was free to break forward on the Albion right and slide a low centre perfectly into the path of SessÃ¨gnon, who did not break stride before sweeping a sumptuous first-time shot from the edge of the area into the top corner.
United huffed and puffed for the remainder of the first half but the killer touch in front of goal was missing. Van Persie, set up by Di MarÃaâ€™s lovely pass, shot straight at Myhill two minutes after SessÃ¨gnonâ€™s goal and the Dutchman went close again later in the half, when he picked Joleon Lescottâ€™s pocket and saw his shot blocked by Craig Dawson.
Van Gaal made a change at the interval and was quickly rewarded. Di MarÃaâ€™s floated cross from the right looked no more than hopeful but Fellaini, after nudging Lescott, took the ball down on his chest, shifted it out of his feet and thumped a rising 18-yard drive that flashed past Myhill and tore into the net.
It was clearly not what one of Albionâ€™s media staff had in mind. â€œFellaini has now taken his tracksuit off, fortunately he has a Man Utd strip underneath,â€ was the message posted on their official Twitter account moments before the Belgian came on for Herrera. An hour after the game it had been retweeted more than 17,000 times.
United were starting to turn the screw but they contrived to concede a second when Berahino, running on to Chris Bruntâ€™s threaded pass, sprinted clear and calmly beat David de Gea.
Falcao replaced the ineffective Juan Mata and Ashley Young came on for Di MarÃa as United became increasingly desperate. Blind, however, looked the coolest player on the pitch when he stroked a left-foot shot into the net towards the end of a pulsating match. – The Guardian