On the day the Premier League opened its turnstiles again, Manchester United treated a fraction of a crowd to a fraction of a performance. Once again, they saved it all for the last half-hour, deservedly going 1-0 down before Paul Pogba, Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford all scored in a riotous climax.
For West Ham, a harsh lesson in efficiency. They went deservedly ahead through Tomas Soucek but had the chances to finish the game within the first hour. Instead, a distracted United – with, you suspect, one eye on Leipzig on Tuesday – finished them.
There were two consolations even in defeat: first the ease and fluency with which they picked United apart for large periods, and second the heartwarming sound of a stadium resounding to actual human noise.
And so it was that shortly before 5.30pm, the 2,000 West Ham fans who had successfully negotiated the ticket ballot rose from their seats in the Billy Bonds Stand to herald their team once again.
The strains of I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles filled the air. As ever, halfway through the music stopped and the crowd took over to sing the last few lines on their own, ending on a soaring coda of “United! United!” It felt cathartic, operatic, even poetic. Or at least, it did until the PA system drowned them out by playing the official Premier League jingle at full volume.
Did the crowd affect the game? Probably not. We like to imagine, as fans ourselves for the most part, that the indiscriminate noise from the stands can make all the difference. Yet West Ham have played perfectly well without fans and now played perfectly well with them. There were some early roars as Pablo Fornals had a shot saved at the near post.
But the opening exchanges were cautious rather than cavalier, as a United side without Bruno Fernandes in the starting XI for the first time since his arrival tried – and largely failed – to take control.
The temptation will be to attribute United’s lack of creativity to the absence of Fernandes. Yet with Pogba and Donny van de Beek in the centre United were hardly short of craft. Their main issue was in moving the ball quickly out of defence, as West Ham’s well-drilled, tightly coiled system snuffed out many of their attacks at source. Declan Rice, who would later assist Soucek’s goal, was key in stepping up from midfield and disrupting build-up.
When West Ham got the ball forward quickly to their front three, they were a recurrent threat. Jarrod Bowen had the ball in the net only to be flagged offside. Then he turned Alex Telles inside out and crossed for Fornals, whose header hit the side-netting. West Ham were the coming force, but you felt they needed a score to show for it.
It came from Aaron Cresswell’s left-wing corner, flicked on by Rice at the near post, tucked in by Soucek at the far. Another sign of the new normal: mindful of a possible flag or VAR check, the crowd paused before celebrating, before finally erupting with the noise of 20,000.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær wasted no time in bringing on Fernandes for Van de Beek at half-time, with Rashford replacing Edinson Cavani. If it was an attempt to give United some different angles of attack, then it fleetingly did the trick, even if their best chances after the break fell to Harry Maguire and Scott McTominay.
United were moving the ball into more threatening positions, combining a little more efficiently. But it scarcely solved their major problem: the ease with which West Ham could play through them. Bowen missed an open goal from Vladimir Coufal’s cross, albeit from a tough angle.
The missed chances were beginning to pile up. Yet, there was still a shocking quickness to the way West Ham were made to pay for them.
United’s first goal came in bizarre circumstances: a West Ham counter breaking down, Dean Henderson smashing the ball up the right wing, Fernandes bringing it inside for Pogba, who curled in beautifully from 25 yards.
On the touchline, West Ham argued that Henderson’s kick had arced out of play as it looped up the touchline, but VAR was inconclusive. Two minutes later, United were ahead: Telles with the cut-back from the left, Greenwood with a clever turn and an instinctive low finish.
With 13 minutes left, Rashford sprang the offside trap and ran clear on to Juan Mata’s through-ball, finishing the game with a dainty chip.
Though Saïd Benrahma looked spicy when he came on as a substitute, even though Cresswell went close with a free-kick, you suspect that West Ham will see this as a crushing missed opportunity.