With a 2-0 victory and a fourth clean sheet of the season in hand, Manchester United marched out of a wet Old Trafford with a deserved three points in hand.
That being said, the last fixture of 2012 showed us just as much about what each side can do right as well as where their shortfalls lie at this point in the season.
In the end, Steve Clarke’s men will be disappointed not to have trudged away from the Theatre of Dreams with as much as a goal to their name, but they can take heart from other areas of the 90-minute performance nonetheless.
With several players in the Manchester United squad now on the wrong side of 30, it’s only natural that the team begins to show its share of holes at this stage of the campaign.
Combine with that the regular dose of injuries and absences that come part and parcel with a season in the Premier league, and selections start to become that much more of a task for even the most skilled of managers.
In recent months, doubts have arisen around the talents of players such as Patrice Evra, Ashley Young, Jonny Evans and Antonio Valencia, asking whether they’re still providing the service a club such as United require of them.
Having all shown the “Red Devil Grade of Approval” at one time or another, it’s players such as the aforementioned quartet that are certainly showing their quality when it counts.
The brittle, mid-season conditions sometimes signal the making or breaking of entire seasons, and Ferguson is fortunate that even those players sometimes looked at as some of his weakest assets are playing with great results.
While a clean sheet speaks highly of Evans and Evra, Young was pivotal in the opening goal that put United ahead and has been displaying much improvement for the past few weeks now.
On the opposite wing, Antonio Valencia may not have a Premier League goal to his name this season, but was an ever-present option against the Baggies and tormented Liam Ridgewell on a regular basis.
Every manager will have one or perhaps even several players he can rely on to perform to their maximum every week. It’s the inconsistent stars who are most important to any campaign, and Manchester United are now performing well as a squad, much to Ferguson’s joy.
While the West Midlands outfit are far from out of contention for an uncharacteristically high finish this season, Saturday’s beating at the hands of Manchester United exposed the very evident gorge that still exists between the pair.
From the beginning of Saturday’s clash, it was obvious the West Brom had lined up with the intention of not conceding, rather than taking the game to their opponents in the hopes of earning a shock result.
In fairness, few, if any teams are able to match the Red Devils in terms of attacking prowess, and Newcastle United would be just the most recent example of a team that tried to do so but failed.
One could argue that the scoreline would have ended with a differential of more than two had the visitors been more attacking, but these are the necessary risks that must be taken when one is seeking great fortune.
In the end, the counter-attacking mentality served Steve Clarke just as well as a more offensively crafted strategy would have, and his outfit left Old Trafford without so much as a point to boast of.
West Brom currently lie in seventh spot in the Premier League but risk slipping further adrift of the top-four pace unless they go about their business against “bigger clubs” with a bit more intent.
In Gotham City, Robin is always the second fiddle to Batman; the sidekick who merely helps in swatting down the works of their enemies but never takes the due credit.
At Old Trafford, things work in a slightly different manner, and while 25 minutes may qualify as little more than a cameo, it was more than enough for Robin van Persie to have a telling influence on Saturday’s affairs.
Armed with nothing more than a keen sense of positioning and his trusty left boot, it was RVP who put an uncertain result out of doubt and ensured that the three points stayed out of the clutches of the Albion.
With fellow Red Devil heavy-hitter Wayne Rooney out through injury, van Persie will now be looked to as United’s leading figure in front of goal. By notching his 14th goal of the season, he became just the second player ever to finish two consecutive calendar years as Premier League top scorer (the first being Alan Shearer).
When Sir Alex Ferguson’s squad are at full strength, the Dutch hitman is supplied with ample ammunition, replying in turn with a hat-full of goals.
That being said, it’s when injuries such as Rooney’s are evident in the roster that players such as van Persie need to stand up and be held accountable, a feat which was evidenced in the 2-0 addition against West Brom.
For the first two-thirds of Saturday’s game, West Brom were shy, conservative and failed to create much in terms of attacking chances, a disposition that changed upon Lukaku’s introduction.
Although Peter Odemwingie and Shane Long had their bright flashes, it was only when Lukaku came on that Steve Clarke’s side really started to fashion scoring opportunities.
The 19-year-old has been likened to ex-Chelsea superstar and Champions League winner Didier Drogba for his strong stature and powerful striking approach, a comparison validated by his showing at the Theatre of Dreams.
As David Kent of the Daily Mail explains, Chelsea have the opportunity to bring the youngster back to Stamford Bridge in January, a very viable option given their lack of resources in the striking department.
However, remaining at the Hawthorns would not only assure the starlet of more playing time, but would also do his career a great deal more good in the long run.
Against Manchester United, Lukaku showed that his reported potential is very much the genuine article and perhaps convinced Clarke that he’s more deserving of a starting spot than others.
Even with just Fernando Torres as competition back with his parent club, Lukaku’s lack of experience would only deteriorate his chances of playing time, and the fact that the player himself wishes to remain in the Black Country only improves West Brom’s case for hanging onto their loan signing (via Daily Mail).
Sir Alex Ferguson chose to deploy numerous changes to his starting lineup for the visit by West Brom; a decision that showed not only how strong their starting XI can be, but also the bench.
It’s common knowledge that in Anders Lindegaard, the Reds have a very genuine threat to David De Gea’s No.1 spot, ready to pounce at the slightest mistake, but the replacements run far further than that.
While they may all be nearing retirement ages, Rio Ferdinand, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes—all of whom are near-assured to go down as Manchester United legends—each have their use to the club and made up a vastly experienced portion of Saturday’s substitutions.
In the attacking ranks, Robin van Persie and Javier Hernandez stood on standby to bolster Ferguson’s offence, something the former certainly did in the dying minutes of the encounter.
Additionally, summer signing and Old Trafford new boy Alexander Büttner sat in reserve should the aging Evra have needed to come off. Büttner has only featured once in the Premier League for United, but managed to net a debut goal against Wigan and would appear to have a bright future ahead of him, something which remains to be seen, of course.
In any glorious, title-winning (even treble-winning) campaign, it’s never just the starting team that a side relies on to yield silverware—the men coming off the bench can provide just as much security in doing the deed.
Given the incredible amount of talent on the bench for Manchester United against West Brom, even if it is just for now, the Red Devils’ roster would appear to be as full to the brim as it ever has been.
While this isn’t at all a criticism of how well David De Gea or Anders Lindegaard may or may not be doing so far during their careers at Old Trafford, it is a point towards the decision to let Ben Foster leave Manchester United.
At the time of his departure in 2010, Foster had a further three years to run on a four-year extension he had signed with the Red Devils in 2009, showing that the club certainly had faith in him once upon a time.
However, mistakes in the Community Shield and Manchester derby meant that the then-England international once again fell behind Edwin van der Sar in the pecking order, much to his disapproval.
If Saturday's display was evidence of anything, it was that despite the 2-0 deficit, Foster is one of the brighter lights in West Brom's backline and is back to the playing best that first saw him court a starting spot at the Theatre of Dreams.
Upon his move to Birmingham City, it was no secret that Foster wanted to play first-team football and, as the Daily Mail reported in December 2010, he wasn’t a fan of the “cut-throat mentality” in place at Old Trafford.
However, while Foster may have been aching for a starting spot, his talent was in question at the time, and he was obviously fazed by the reality of playing second fiddle to one as great as Van der Sar.
Two years later and Foster is one of the Premier League’s most consistent stoppers, having kept clean sheets in a third of the games he’s featured in this season, something De Gea cannot boast of.
Of course, such records are down to team defences more than individual goalkeeping efforts, but then, wouldn’t one agree that the Manchester United defence, of significantly higher financial worth, is better than West Brom’s?
In any case, neither club nor individual will want to look back on the decision to sell Foster, but with their former youth 'keeper at just 29 years of age, Manchester United may not have had to splurge £20 million on a youthful Spaniard had they kept Foster around for another season or two.