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Mar 22, 2014

Three Things: West Ham vs. Man United

LONDON -- A trio of thoughts from Man United's 2-0 win vs. West Ham.

1. Rooney’s wonder strike sets up victory

Even in the context of Wayne Rooney’s Manchester United career, which has lasted a decade and featured some sensational goals, his opener was something quite special.

It was classic Rooney, combining extraordinary vision with a touch of physicality. West Ham complained about his nudge on James Tomkins, which levered the defender out of the way, but this is an ultra-physical Hammers side, and they can hardly complain when outmuscled by an opposition striker in a relatively innocuous way.

The strike itself was sensational. Rooney looked up from fully 45 yards and spotted Adrian off his line before striking the ball at a height which enabled him to launch a proper “up-and-under”, and judged the weight perfectly.

The slight slice on the shot completely baffled Adrian in the West Ham goal, who retreated towards the far post, realised he was moving in the wrong direction, then completed a 360 degree spin before collapsing helplessly onto the ground as the ball bounced up into the top of the netting.

The television cameras immediately picked out David Beckham (back in “his manor” as he once described East London ahead of the 2012 Olympics), who famously scored a goal from a similar position against Wimbledon at Selhurst Park, on the opening day of 1996-97 (later Rooney would claim his goal was better).

While he is capable of genuinely baffling decisions in the final third -- there was one particularly odd diagonal pass in this game -- it is Rooney’s capacity to perform the unexpected and the unthinkable, which makes him such a sensational footballer.

Without the injured Robin van Persie, he looked at home in the number nine role he played with such distinction back in 2009-10, which was arguably his best for United.

Clearly, the club have showed Rooney too much respect with regard to contracts, and some of his behaviour has been reprehensible, but he remains a truly exceptional footballer capable of wonderful moments.

2. Kagawa and Mata link up

In the absence of van Persie, David Moyes was forced to devise an alternative system in the final third.

Somewhat surprisingly, his starting XI didn’t include Danny Welbeck, who played excellently on the left flank in the midweek win over Olympiakos.

Instead, Rooney played the centre-forward role, Juan Mata was in his favoured no. 10 position, Shinji Kagawa enjoyed a rare start on the left, and Ashley Young played on the right wing, staying wide and stretching the play rather than drifting inside, as he does too frequently from the left.

Rooney stole the headlines with an individual piece of magic, but the most promising aspect of United’s performance was the way Kagawa and Mata constantly combined. This was the first time the creative duo had started together, and from the opening moments they were clearly on each other’s wavelength, combining regularly in dangerous positions.

The relationship led to three separate chances in the first half. First, on a mini-break when United had won the ball inside the West Ham half, Kagawa found himself driving at the home defence and slipped in Mata, breaking forward in an inside-left position. His shot was slightly weak, but the promise was clear.

10 minutes later, Mata sent an excellent lobbed pass over the top of the defence for the Japanese, who was breaking in behind. Kagawa couldn’t quite catch up with the ball, and it bounced through to Adrian, but he immediately turned and thanked Mata for the pass and received an acknowledgment for the intelligence of the run.

Midway through the first half, there was a reverse of their first move: Mata teed up Kagawa for a left-footed shot from the left side of the box, which was again fielded by Adrian.

No-one denies United possess a talented group of attackers, but so rarely have we seen them actually combine cohesively under Moyes.

On this evidence, Mata and Kagawa’s relationship is very promising, and Young deserves credit for providing the balance on the right, almost Theo Walcott-style, which prevented the play from becoming too narrow. His cross led to Rooney’s second, and he was always available for a switch of play.

Welbeck will hope to return against Manchester City on Tuesday, but it would be a shame not to continue with Mata and Kagawa in these roles.

3. Predictable Hammers

It’s tough to keep up with West Ham’s current form: after four victories on the bounce, they’ve now recorded three defeats in a row and this felt like a missed opportunity.

Their opponents had obvious weaknesses. With four centre-backs out injured, Michael Carrick was forced to partner Phil Jones, and the knock-on effect was Marouane Fellaini playing a very deep role, sometimes dropping in as an extra centre-back to assist in the air against Andy Carroll.

With Mata at the head of the midfield triangle, and not renowned for his work rate, it meant Darren Fletcher was forced to cover a huge amount of ground; something he sadly finds much more difficult since his illness.

West Ham rarely took advantage of this space in midfield, however. It was understandable they wanted to test Carrick in the air, but their approach was amazingly one-dimensional and they only really threatened from set-pieces.

Most frustrating, though, was Sam Allardyce’s use of his bench. Having started with a basic crossing approach, his first two substitutions involved sending on another crosser -- Matt Jarvis for Mohamed Diame -- and another aerial target, Carlton Cole, for Kevin Nolan. There’s looking to exploit your opponents’ weak spot and then there’s putting all your eggs in one basket.

West Ham’s midfield and attack after that point -- Jarvis, Matt Taylor, Mark Noble and Stewart Downing across the midfield, with Cole and Carroll upfront in a 4-4-2 -- felt incredibly old-fashioned.

It’s vital that the Premier League boasts variety and that some managers go against the consensus that neat, technical passing football is the only way to succeed, but this is a very basic football side, even in Allardyce terms.

At Bolton his side played long balls up to Kevin Davies, but they also boasted the likes of Jay-Jay Okocha and Youri Djorkaeff, both of whom were capable of a clever pass, an angled run or a simple moment of individual brilliance.

A crossing-based approach is rarely successful, something outlined at the start of the campaign when Allardyce’s transfer strategy became clear.

Carroll’s spell out injured was an obvious problem, but there’s no real excuse now he’s back in the side; West Ham were just too predictable.