One of these teams is finally moving slowly forwards, the other continues to regress. So why would anybody be surprised that West Ham saw off Manchester United rather routinely here?
For those who haven’t been watching properly, this is what United have become. They are a mid-table Premier League team in waiting. The only question is whether the rest of the teams supposedly challenging for the top six positions have the wherewithal to put them there.
The occasional result can hide a few things. Last season’s win at Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League saw Ole Gunnar Solskjaer given the manager’s job, for example. On the opening day of this season, United beat Chelsea 4-0.
Aaron Cresswell passionately celebrates after his superb free-kick doubles West Ham’s lead late against Manchester United
The full-back marked his return to the West Ham starting line-up with a goal as he curled in a free-kick from 25 yards out
Cresswell’s free-kick managed to get over the United wall before curling into the top right-hand corner of De Gea’s goal
West Ham players run over to celebrate with Cresswell after his free-kick doubles the lead late on in their clash with United
A dejected Harry Maguire looks on after seeing Cresswell’s free-kick fly into the net, all but confirming the result late on
MATCH FACTS, PLAYER RATINGS AND LEAGUE TABLE
WEST HAM: (4-2-3-1) Fabianski 7.5; Fredericks 6 (Zabaleta 79mins 6), Diop 7, Ogbonna 7, Cresswell 7; Noble 8, Rice 7; Yarmolenko 7.5 (Snodgrass 88mins 6), Fornals 6.5, Anderson 7 (Wilshere 70mins 6); Haller 6.5
SUBS NOT USED: Roberto (GK); Balbuena, Sanchez, Ajeti
GOALS: Yarmolenko (44), Cresswell (84)
BOOKINGS: Ogbonna (14), Noble (75)
COACH: Manuel Pellegrini 8
MANCHESTER UNITED: (4-2-3-1) De Gea 6; Wan-Bissaka 6, Maguire 6, Lindelof 5.5, Young 5; Matic 5 (Fred 70mins 6), McTominay 5; Pereira 6, Mata 5 (Gomes 80mins 5) James 6; Rashford 4 (Lingard 60mins 6)
SUBS NOT USED: Romero (GK); Rojo, Tuanzebe, Chong
BOOKINGS: Mata (48), Young (83)
COACH: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer 5
REFEREE: Anthony Taylor 6
MAN OF THE MATCH: Mark Noble (West Ham)
VENUE: The London Stadium
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But any horse can win a race with only one other in it from time to time. The real truth lies in patterns, in sequences, and United have won five of 19 games since that night in Paris and have scored just 16 goals in that time at an average of less than one a game.
Want a true picture of where this team is at? There it is, right there.
It is also to be found in the fact Ashley Young still gets a game, that the United bench is populated by players that could take a trip to the Arndale Centre and not be recognised and that United sold their main centre forward in the summer and didn’t replace him.
As one observer suggested on Sunday night, with Marcus Rashford now injured the only recognised goal scorer United have left is Solskjaer himself. When Rashford – who was dreadful – went off in the second half here, Jesse Lingard – a midfield player – replaced him.
Andriy Yarmolenko gave the Hammers the lead on the stroke of half-time following some good build-up play from the hosts
The Ukrainian winger managed to find space in between the United centre-backs before picking up Felipe Anderson’s pass
Yarmolenko then cut inside before unleashing a left-footed shot to the far post which squeezes past David de Gea in net
Yarmolenko is congratulated by his West ham team-mates after he gave his side the lead with a superb finish before half-time
So United are vulnerable and the rest of the Premier League knows it. It has taken some teams a while to cotton but in fairness West Ham are not one of them. Manuel Pellegrini’s team beat them here almost exactly a year ago and have improved since then so there was nothing for them to fear.
For a while it was a poor game. United were leaden and one-paced and West Ham were equally slow to find a rhythm.
Encouragement was to be found for the home team in the form of the United line up. With Juan Mata, Scott McTominay and Nemanja Matic in the side, this was a United team that looked a little ponderous and wooden before the game even started.
West Ham offer greater invention these days and are a little more reliable now that some of their more capricious players – Marko Arnautovic and Javier Hernandez to name two – have left.
They no longer look to the injury-prone Jack Wilshere for salvation either – he began on the bench – and instead have the wit and invention of Felipe Anderson and Andriy Yarmolenko. Both are now in their second season in the English game and it shows.
United striker Marcus Rashford (pictured) lays on the floor after suffering a suspected groin injury during the second half
The England international is seen to by United physios before he limps off the pitch to be replaced by Jesse Lingard
Harry Maguire (middle) has a shot at goal thwarted after the ball falls to him inside the West Ham area after a United corner
The world’s most expensive defender holds his face after his shot is superbly saved by Hammers keeper Lukasz Fabianski
At the base of midfield, Mark Noble and Declan Rice were both impressive. Noble just shaded it, even if he was lucky not to be sent off for a lunge at Aaron Wan-Bissaka not long before he won the free-kick that allowed Aaron Cresswell to curl in his team’s decisive second goal.
At that point, United were still in the game but only just. Solskjaer’s team didn’t create a chance of note in the first half and went in a goal down when West Ham slowly gathered some momentum to score in the 44th minute.
Noble sees so much of the ball for his team and rarely wastes it. Looking to pass down the line just before half-time, he instead had a look inside and played a square pass to Anderson.
This is where opportunity emerged. Anderson saw Yarmolenko in half a yard of space and delivered a pass that needed to be controlled instantly and struck purely. The Ukrainian managed both, moving the ball inside to place Harry Maguire off balance and then striking a low shot across De Gea and inside the far post with great accuracy.
A goal to lift a team and stir a game, the second half was more lively, more competitive. United were slightly more dangerous, but only sporadically, and the contest was eventually decided by a flurry of activity in the final half hour.
Juan Mata spurns a great opportunity to score while United trailed by Yarmolenko’s opener just before the half-time interval
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer signals to where he wants his players to move to as his side trailed by a goal at the London Stadium
De Gea denied Anderson with his knee at his near post in the 62nd minute and then almost immediately Lukasz Fabianski saved brilliantly from Maguire at the other end after the defender’s header from a corner came back to him on his left foot on the angle of the six-yard box.
An equaliser for United at that stage would have changed the whole feeling of this game. But Fabianski – once an uncertain presence at Arsenal – has proved a very good purchase for West Ham and evidence perhaps that some goalkeepers do take time to mature.
That was to be United’s last chance and West Ham finally skewered them with six minutes left. Young’s foul on Noble was clumsy and Cresswell’s execution, high to De Gea’s left, was perfect. As West Ham staff released bubbles on to the field, swathes of United’s travelling support headed for the exit.
It takes a lot to turn off the club’s away fans but this United are testing everybody’s patience.
It may get worse before it gets better but we have been saying that for a while. This is a decline that feels terminal.
Yarmolenko (left) looks to whip in a dangerous cross but is put under pressure by United midfielder Nemanja Matic (right)
Mark Noble (No 16) battles for possession with Aaron Wan-Bissaka (left) during the first half at the London Stadium
Daniel James is sent crashing to the floor following a collision with West Ham’s Issa Diop on Sunday afternoon