Alejandro Garnacho scored twice as Manchester United eased themselves to a 3-0 victory over West Ham at Old Trafford.
Erik ten Hag’s side have now gone five games unbeaten for the first time this season and enjoyed a largely — if not entirely — comfortable afternoon to contrast with the unmitigated drama of their 4-3 win at Wolves on Thursday.
Garnacho struck twice in the second half to follow up Rasmus Hojlund’s opener, on the Danish striker’s 21st birthday, although United were left to rue an injury suffered by centre-back Lisandro Martinez, who was forced off after 71 minutes.
Mark Critchley breaks down all the major talking points from United’s 12th league win of the season.
United outshot but never out of control
It was not always totally convincing, it was not always totally comfortable, but the scoreline still tells a story. Three points, three goals and only United’s third Premier League clean sheet at Old Trafford this season.
United are up to sixth with this win — leapfrogging a West Ham side who will feel that, had the ball bounced their way at times, they may be travelling back to London with a different result.
But even though Ten Hag’s side were comfortably outshot by their opponents — 12 attempts to the visitors’ 22 — they were never outplayed and instead were always clinical enough to take their chances when they came.
That meant that even if this performance did not hit the heights of the first half against Wolverhampton Wanderers on Thursday, there was not the same loss of control or late drama as there was during the second half at Molineux, either.
Thank Garnacho for that.
If the first of his two goals, early in the second half, took the game away from West Ham, his second, with six minutes of the 90 to play, made sure of the points. Garnacho has quietly locked down his place on the right wing, looking more natural there than in his more recognised natural left-winger position with every passing game. A connection is developing between him, his fellow goalscorer Hojlund and Marcus Rashford.
Seven goals in the past four days have lifted a side who were previously struggling for fluency. There is still room for improvement in all departments but Ten Hag can enjoy that rarest of things this season: a win that came with little fuss.
Alejandro Garnacho gets a second, Manchester United cruising 🔴✨ pic.twitter.com/MUX6cU4xeA
— Sky Sports Premier League (@SkySportsPL) February 4, 2024
Martinez injury a major blow
United’s tenth different centre-back pairing of the season was not looking too bad until Martinez’s right knee gave way.
Surprisingly, this was the first time that Martinez had lined up with Harry Maguire since April and, given the uncertainty over Raphael Varane’s Old Trafford future, that pair were perhaps laying the foundations of a partnership that may have become a fixture over the campaign’s final four months.
Varane has shown his worth to United but there are no guarantees over what happens next
That could still happen but the nature of Martinez’s injury was worrying. Despite his best attempts to put on a brave face and suck up the damage caused by a tangle with Vladimir Coufal midway through the second half, the battle-hardened centre-back could not carry on.
United had missed Martinez hugely since the recurrence of a foot injury in September and were only just starting to feel the benefit of his composure in possession and ability to play out from the back following his mid-January return. No other centre-back in the squad has that ability. No other is perhaps as adept at the more traditional arts of defending, either.
Ten Hag was just getting used to having a nice kind of headache — all four of his best centre-backs fit and available, with Maguire making his first start since December 12 and Victor Lindelof also back in today’s squad after a two-month absence. But now, he may have to make do and mend again, having potentially lost one of his most important players.
Hojlund hits form
When Hojlund was brought off before the hour mark, with the match still 0-0, in the reverse fixture two days before Christmas, you worried that his then 14-game goal drought in the Premier League could go on for a while longer. Yet it came to an end in his next outing, against Aston Villa.
Hojlund has barely looked back after breaking his duck that night — his opener here was his fifth goal in six games, and fourth in four.
But there was something especially convincing about this goal — scored on the day he turns 21 — compared to his other recent strikes. As he shifted his body weight to beat Nayef Aguerd and arrowed a shot with his weaker foot into the bottom left-hand corner, he looked like a striker coming of age.
That is the difference: the confidence that Hojlund is now exuding. Having never let his head drop during that long Premier League barren spell after his summer arrival from Italy’s Atalanta, he is now holding it high.
After speaking enthusiastically at Molineux in midweek about his place in a new, younger generation coming through at United, it was heartwarming to see him, Kobbie Mainoo and Garnacho sitting on the pitchside advertising hoardings in celebration of the latter making it 2-0.
His individual celebrations still need a bit of work, though — after his ecstatic fist pumps while being crushed by Wolves’ Craig Dawson for his goal on Thursday, this time he played some air guitar on his left leg.
But when it comes to goal celebrations, the important thing is he’s now getting more practice at them.
What did Ten Hag say?
We will bring you this after he has spoken at the post-match press conference.
What next for United?
Sunday, February 11: Aston Villa (A), Premier League, 4.30pm GMT, 11.30am ET
A sterner test of where Ten Hag’s side are right now as they face Unai Emery’s energetic Villa, who have lost once at home in the league this season, winning nine out of 11 at Villa Park, and demolished Sheffield United 5-0 away yesterday.
(Top photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)