Marcus Rashford’s 100th Manchester United goal was a majestic header that propelled them to the points, ahead of a watching Gareth Southgate. If the England manager can be grateful to Erik ten Hag for reviving the forward ahead of the World Cup, the main story here concerned how the Dutchman continues to lift United.
Rashford is the epitome of a footballer reborn, the lost boy of last season replaced by a super-assured forward whose seventh goal of this campaign is a fitting emblem of the team’s upward trajectory. A product of the famous United academy, on the 85th anniversary of it supplying a player to every matchday team – 4,163 since 1937 – the boy from Wythenshawe’s strike was also perfect.
“There is a completely different energy around the whole club [this season], and I feel more motivated, says Rashford. “I’m in a better headspace – I struggled at times [last year]more mental things, not my performance but things off the pitch.”
On the body part that scored the goal, Rashford said: “I need to score more goals with my head – I just need to work on attacking the ball, getting in the right areas.”
His winner should share the stage with Christian Eriksen and Lisandro Martínez as the standout individual acts that decorated a United display that featured late and valiant defending. United dominated the contest from the first whistle until then, giving their fans a fine farewell to the Premier League home game until after Christmas.
Rashford’s opener was a hash of Diogo Dalot’s cross before Anthony Elanga, preferred to Jadon Sancho, did much better when he drifted on to Eriksen’s defence-splitting aerial ball.
Cristiano Ronaldo was selected in the League XI for the first time in three games. Antony, with a leg injury, and Victor Lindelöf, whose illness may have allowed Harry Maguire’s selection along with Martínez, who didn’t make the cut.
To test Lukasz Fabianski, Ronaldo peeled off the front, collected from Casemiro and fired a 25-yard laser at the No.1’s midriff. Rashford’s best moment so far came when he cut in from the left and pinged a shot from Tomas Soucek for a corner. At this the No. 10 eventually met Dalot’s cross with a header which Fabianski saved without moving.
West Ham were suffocating as Ten Hag demands. A combination of Ronaldo and Bruno Fernandes claimed another corner from this, as Saïd Benrahma broke down West Ham’s left, the sight of Rashford thundering across to cover was just what the manager ordered.
United resembled a holding unit, West Ham the attacking one, as exemplified when a flustered Maguire missed Gianluca Scamacca and the Italian’s ball sent Benrahma skating towards David de Gea and the visitors claimed a corner.
West Ham had come to life. Aaron Cresswell’s delivery was cleared by Casemiro and Declan Rice shrugged off Fernandes, showing the captain’s intent. Martínez offered a response, swarming over Flynn Downes and offloading a no-look pass that saw Ronaldo slide in. But his intended contact with Rashford was poor, as Ten Hag’s exasperation on the sidelines showed.
United soon struck. On the right, Eriksen took Dalot’s throw-in, traded passes with Fernandes, and when the Dane hung up a superb ball, Rashford beat Thilo Kehrer to head home a second successive game: a particularly sweet way to bring up the century for his boyhood club in front of Southgate, especially as it allowed United to gallop into the break.
Maguire, too, could have impressed the England manager by handling the muscular Scamacca in a West Ham raid – although a later Jarrod Bowen spin by the captain would be marked in the not-so-good column.
Scamacca saw Martínez block a shot and headed the rebound, where the Italian’s boot met his temple. Free-kick to United, who had dropped down a gear but were able to shift up again smoothly, as when Casemiro spun forward and Ronaldo collected from Rashford only to miss at the near post. Another Ronaldo shot – deflected for a corner – Fernandes, Rashford and Shaw created geometric angles down the left, and Scott McTominay’s glancing header illustrated who was in charge.
Time, finally for sustained pressure from West Ham as Ronaldo cleared a corner, Eriksen another. The competition ended up in the balance. Martínez, perhaps sensing this, ensured a sliding tackle prevented Michail Antonio, who had come on for Scamacca, as the closing stages saw the visitors drop several balls into United’s area. Dalot , excellent all afternoon, again had to deny Antonio who seconds later saw a piledriver tipped by De Gea, the No.1 next turned Kurt Zouma’s header around his right post in a scintillating save.
At the other end, Fred saw his header hit a post: this would have dogged the Brazilian had not De Gea, in the frantic finale, somehow managed to fly to his left to save Rice’s 20-yard burner.
De Gea said: “Of the two saves, the Zouma header was probably the best because it almost certainly went in, but I’m happy for all of them. Happy to make the saves and it’s a massive win.”
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