Marcus Rashford’s 100th Manchester United goal was a majestic header that propelled Erik ten Hag’s team to the points and came in front of a watching Gareth Southgate. If the England manager can be grateful to Ten Hag for revitalising the forward as the World Cup hoves into view, the main story here concerned how the Dutchman continues to elevate United.
Rashford is the epitome of a player reborn, last term’s lost boy replaced by a super-confident forward whose seventh of the season is an apt emblem of the team’s upward trajectory. His pulsating winner should share centre-stage with Christian Eriksen and Lisandro Martínez as the standout individual acts who decorated a United display that featured some late and valiant defending. United bossed the contest from the first whistle until then, giving their fans a fine farewell to home Premier League action until after Christmas.
The contest had begun with Rashford making a hash of Diogo Dalot’s cross before Anthony Elanga, preferred to Jadon Sancho, doing somewhat better when drifting on to Eriksen’s defence-splitting aerial ball.
The answer to the latest Cristiano Ronaldo selection question had been yes – the Portuguese was chosen in the league XI for the first time in three matches. Not making the cut, though, were Antony (injury) and Victor Lindelöf, whose illness may have allowed Harry Maguire’s selection alongside Martínez.
To test Lukasz Fabianski, Ronaldo peeled off the front, collected from Casemiro, and hit a 25-yard laser into the No 1’s midriff. Rashford’s best moments came now as he cut in from the left channel and pinged a shot off Tomas Soucek for a corner. At this, eventually, the No 10 met Dalot’s cross with a header Fabianski saved without moving.
West Ham were being suffocated as Ten Hag demands. A Ronaldo and Bruno Fernandes combination claimed another corner and when Saïd Benrahama broke along West Ham’s left from this, the sight of Rashford thundering over to cover was precisely what the manager ordered.
United were a keep-ball unit, West Ham the counter-punching one, as when a flailing Maguire missed Gianluca Scamacca and the Italian’s ball sent Benhrama skating in towards David de Gea and the visitors claimed a corner.
West Ham had come alive. Aaron Cresswell’s delivery was cleared by Casemiro and then Declan Rice shrugging off Fernandes showed the captain’s intent.
Martínez, as he can, offered a riposte, swarming over Flynn Downes and unloading a no-look pass that had Ronaldo slipping inside but his intended tap to Rashford was poor as Ten Hag’s touchline exasperation indicated.
Better was a Luke Shaw overlap that engineered a delivery from Rashford’s ball. Later in the sequence Shaw, again, dinked a cross over and though Elanga miscued United soon struck.
On the right Eriksen took a Dalot throw-in, traded passes with Fernandes, and when the Dane hung up a superb ball Rashford knocked over Thilo Kehrer to head home for a second consecutive match: a particularly sweet way to bring up the century for his boyhood club in front of Southgate, especially as it allowed United to canter into the break.
Maguire, too, might have impressed the England manager via his shepherding of the muscular Scamacca at a West Ham foray though a later Jarrod Bowen spin of the captain would be marked in the not-so-good column.
The Italian saw Martínez block a shot and put his head into the rebound where Scamacca’s boot met temple. Free-kick to United, who had dropped down a gear but were able to shift back up smoothly as when Casemiro purred forward, and Ronaldo collected from Rashford only to miss at the near post.
A further Ronaldo shot – deflected for a corner – Fernandes, Rashford and Shaw fashioning geometric angles down the left, and a glancing Scott McTominay header illustrated who was in charge.
Time, at last, for sustained West Ham pressure as Ronaldo cleared one corner, Eriksen another. The contest was in the balance. Martínez, perhaps sensing this, ensured a sliding tackle thwarted Michail Antonio, who had entered for Scamacca, as the closing phase had West Ham dropping more balls into United’s area. Diego Dalot again had to deny Antonio who, seconds later, saw a piledriver tipped over by De Gea, the No 1 next turning Kurt Zouma’s header around the corner.
Fred’s header hit a post and in a frantic finale De Gea, somehow, flew sideways to save Rice’s 20-yard barnburner.