Manchester United extended the longest unbeaten away run in English top-flight history to 19 games, enhanced their reputation as the masters of the comeback, reclaimed second place from Leicester and scored a candidate for goal of the month.
None of which should deflect from the reality that this was another missed opportunity. United have had a sequence of five games in which they have equalled a Premier League record winning margin and yet only claimed six points. After losing to Sheffield United, they experienced more trouble with the stragglers by being held by West Bromwich Albion. Such results will only ease Manchester City’s passage to the title.
It was a draw with a difference for United. This was the eighth time they have gone behind on the road in this season’s Premier League. They have recovered to win seven. For once, the early goal cost them. United’s riposte, from Bruno Fernandes, was magnificent, but they needed a second. And it eluded them.
Albion were reprieved in different fashions. Referee Craig Pawson awarded a penalty when Semi Ajayi appeared to tug Harry Maguire. The United captain may have been offside but Pawson overturned his own verdict after viewing the monitor and determining that Maguire had made the most of the contact.
Then came two last-gasp interventions in a few seconds, with Sam Johnstone blocking Mason Greenwood’s shot before, from the rebound, Scott McTominay let fly and Darnell Furlong cleared off the line. Finally, deep into added time, the former United youngster Johnstone made a magnificent save from Maguire, pushing his header on to the post. Albion were hanging on but, in many ways, they deserved the point.
They had been wretched for much of Sam Allardyce’s reign but this was overdue improvement. There was organisation, determination, plenty of dogged defending and a strategy.
Their goal was part of a broader tactic as Allardyce targeted United’s frailties in the air. Conor Gallagher crossed, Mbaye Diagne climbed over Victor Lindelof rather too easily, even if he did wrap his hand around the Swede’s face, and headed in. Later, after another cross, Robert Snodgrass’ header was tipped over by David De Gea.
Diagne, the loan signing from Galatasaray, has given Allardyce a target man. He opened his Albion account and almost secured a winner. He overpowered Maguire, De Gea saved his shot but Diagne seemed certain to head in the rebound until the goalkeeper picked himself up off the ground to claw it away. Diagne threatened again, skying a shot when substitute Matt Phillips set him up, but De Gea, who erred to allow Everton an equaliser last weekend, could savour a redemptive moment.
This time he may find fault with those in front of him. Albion had only led for 10 minutes at the Hawthorns under Allardyce. United’s muted start allowed them to settle in to a pattern of resistance. They were ahead for 42 minutes with barely a threat to their goal until United levelled in spectacular style. Maguire fed the overlapping Luke Shaw and his cross was volleyed in brilliantly by Fernandes.
It was a typical intervention from Maguire, who kept bringing the ball out from the back, looking to add another dimension to their attacks against Albion’s deep defence. He was more prominent that some of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s forwards. Anthony Martial was especially ineffective but Edinson Cavani’s 34th birthday was an unproductive affair. Once again, United could be grateful to Fernandes.