Manchester United must know that it is a possibility that they will spend another season in the shadow of their formidable neighbours. The most famous club in England are 19 points behind Manchester City with one game remaining and while this forgettable draw secured second place for José Mourinho’s spluttering team, that will not be cause for celebration when they consider the ease with which Pep Guardiola’s record-breaking champions have cantered into the distance.
The gap is vast and United will struggle to cut it as long as they continue to toil against opponents as limited as West Ham. Mourinho argued that a point was a respectable reward but United’s fans, who spent much of the second half bellowing their support for the hospitalised Sir Alex Ferguson on a drab night, must be concerned at their team’s negative approach.
Forget about the late sideshow flare-up between Paul Pogba and Mark Noble The real intrigue was that when Mourinho turned to his bench as this dire game neared its conclusion, he did not consider the merits of Anthony Martial. Instead he opted for caution, turning to Eric Bailly and Ashley Young to see United over the line, and Martial stayed in his seat, yawning along with the rest of us.
“When the game goes to minute 70 or 75, you don’t win, you don’t lose,” Mourinho said. “We deserved the point and second position. When you are not ready to be champion, second position is the best available.”
It might seem harsh to be critical given that United got the job done, assuming their task was to participate in a grim slog. Yet it is hard to shake off the impression Mourinho is managing expectations in an effort to make it seem that he cannot be blamed for his team’s failure to compete with City.
He had glowered more than usual before this game and his observation that some of the players at his disposal are not good enough to challenge Guardiola’s side did not seem like a classic motivational ploy.
United, who made eight changes after their defeat at Brighton, rarely suggested that they were going to respond to their manager’s curious form of tough love. They needed time to adjust to an unfamiliar 3-4-1-2 system and although they looked solid in the central areas, it must have alarmed Mourinho when Chris Smalling’s failure to deal with Aaron Cresswell’s cross almost allowed Marko Arnautovic to give West Ham an early lead.
Arnautovic turned an awkward header over, however, and United started to threaten sporadically. Pogba had the freedom to roam behind Alexis Sánchez and Jesse Lingard, and Mourinho’s side could argue that they were unfortunate not to be in front at the interval. Scott McTominay sent a shot inches wide after an error from Manuel Lanzini, Lingard had two swerving shots pushed away by Adrián, and West Ham were indebted to a brilliant piece of athleticism from their goalkeeper in the 23rd minute.
Sánchez, who scored a hat-trick for Arsenal on this ground last season, must have been licking his lips when Antonio Valencia found him with a cut-back from the right. He had time to pick his spot and he tried to bend a shot high to Adrián’s right. The Spaniard responded with a sharp stop, however, and then he sprang back into position to turn Luke Shaw’s fizzing low drive against the woodwork.
It is two years to the day since West Ham said farewell to Upton Park with an emotional victory over United and with his team’s Premier League status secured, there was an argument that this was an opportunity for David Moyes to let go of the handbrake.
At least Arnautovic gave it a go. The Austrian took on United’s back three on his own at times and he deserved better after a powerful surge down the right only for João Mário to jab the cross wide from close range.
With Romelu Lukaku unavailable and Mourinho waiting until the 74th minute to bring on Marcus Rashford, United’s attacks lacked a potent presence. Sánchez was persistent and he almost took advantage of indecision from Adrián early in the second half, however. Yet West Ham were relieved that Angelo Ogbonna raced back to head the Chilean’s chip off the line. Declan Rice, another assured presence at the back, would also earn appreciative applause for a fine tackle on Sánchez.
West Ham’s reluctance to throw caution to the wind was hard to justify, with Moyes waiting until the 66th minute to introduce Andy Carroll. Yet the temperature only rose when Pogba and Noble clashed. Both men were booked but Carroll could face punishment from the Football Association after appearing to lash out at Shaw. At least Noble and Pogba had cooled down sufficiently to share an embrace after the final whistle.