Manchester United made it two wins from two following on from their derby defeat to Manchester City last weekend. The Red Devils put Alan Pardew's West Bromwich Albion side to the sword in what could have been a bit of a banana skin heading into the Christmas period when the matches come thick and fast.
Before today, West Brom hadn't conceded more than a goal in a game under their new manager but United took a 2-0 lead into the break thanks to goals from Romelu Lukaku and Jesse Lingard.
The home side threatened to halve the deficit but couldn't find a way past David De Gea in the United goal until Gareth Barry fired home with 13 minutes to play. The win takes José Mourinho‘s men three points clear of Chelsea and stretches their lead over fourth placed Arsenal to nine points.
West Brom, however, remain in 19th position and really are in a relegation battle. Though performances have improved since Pardew's appointment, the fact remains they've only taken two points from a possible 12.
Here are five things we learned from the match at the Hawthorns this afternoon.
Pardew continues to play it safe
The West Brom manager, a seasoned veteran when it comes to knowing what’s required to ensure Premier League survival, is putting all of his knowhow to good use. While others may have arrived at the Hawthorns and looked to switch things up completely, the former Newcastle United manager has set his side up similar to how the team operated under his predecessor, Tony Pulis.
They’re well organised and disciplined. Pardew knows one point is better than none and it’s perhaps the main reason he’s sacrificed the WBA attack over recent weeks. It’s a safety first approach, and one that may not be easy on the eye, but if you aren’t conceding then you aren’t losing.
They’d conceded just one goal in three prior to hosting United and picked up two points without managing to find the back of the net themselves. Pulis’ final three games saw him pick up two points but the team conceded seven goals in the process.
Burke could be the wildcard
Pardew handed Oliver Burke his first Premier League start for West Brom in what could be described as a baptism of fire. The 20-year-old is no stranger to Eglish football having played for Nottingham Forest before his move to the Bundesliga with RB Leipzig. However, before today he'd played just 68 minutes of Premier League football.
Despite the enormity of the task at hand, the Scottish international did enough to justify his inclusion from the start. If he's given the opportunity on a regular basis, and Pardew trusts him to execute his game plan, then Burke could be a wildcard, the difference maker and the match winner for the Baggies.
He showed he had what it takes while playing for Nottingham Forest. He was averaging 1.2 key passes per 90 minutes and 3.2 dribbles. Different league, different team but nobody in the West Brom squad gets close to those numbers. If Pardew's plan is to sit deep and soak up pressure then Burke could be the player needed to hit teams on the break.
No West Brom player completed more dribbles (4) than the Scottish international today. He threatened the United backline with his direct play. Is it a sign of things to come?
Lukaku finding his form at the right time
Lukaku scored 11 goals in his first 10 games for United and, as bizarre as it sounds, the £70million the Red Devils paid to bring him to Old Trafford looked like a bargain.
However, in the following 12 games he found the back of the net just once and questions were being asked as to whether he was consistent enough to help Mourinho deliver a title.
However, when you look beyond the goal tally you realise it’s naive to lay the blame for the goal-drought squarely at his feet. Mourinho’s men simply haven’t been creating many chances for their No.9. His expected goals (xG) for the season is 10.23 and he’s on nine for the current campaign. He’s not underperforming as much as people would have you believe.
The Belgian had scored two in his last three before returning to the club who helped make him a household name in England. Prior to this latest trip the 24-year-old had been involved in a goal every 81 minutes against West Brom having scored four and assisted a further three.
He always seems to deliver against them and bagged the opener today with a fine header from six-yards out. Is he about to go on another goalscoring run just when United need it most?
Evans is too good to sit on the bench
Jonny Evans is reportedly a transfer target for the likes of Arsenal, Man City and, the visitors today, Man United. The Red Devils let the Northern Irishman leave in 2015 and it's clear to see now it was a mistake. The defenders to arrive at Old Trafford have been inconsistent and lacked experience, something Evans has in abundance.
But would a move to any of those clubs really be beneficial to the 29-year-old unless he was given assurances of a first-team role? He's too good to be sat on the bench heading into the prime of his career. Though WBA have been underperforming this season, Evans continues to be the standout performer at the heart of the defence.
Links to Malcom make sense
Duncan Castles recently revealed that United had been keeping a close eye on Bordeaux's versatile forward, Malcom. The report went on to suggest the Red Devils would test the resolve of the Ligue 1 side by offering £26million for the Brazilian in January which would see the French club pocket £21million profit on a player they signed just 12 months ago.
Now, on paper it doesn’t appear as though United need offensive reinforcements. They’ve scored 37 Premier League goals, the second highest behind rivals Manchester City.
United failed to add a left-footer to their attack during the summer months missing out on Ivan Perišić and recent reports have linked them to Thomas Lemar. It’s clear Mourinho wants to add balance to the forward line and Malcom would offer just that.
Mourinho has the likes of Lukaku, Paul Pogba, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard, Zlatan Ibrahimović, Juan Mata and Henrikh Mkhitaryan at his disposal. However, United have looked at their best this season when they break with real pace. The former three on that list don’t offer that and when United have to field one, two or all of them, the team don’t look quite as scary going forward.
Malcom would add depth to the squad and a quartet of him, Lukaku, Rashford and Martial would make them one of the best counter-attacking units in the world today. It’s not just about having pace to break on teams when there’s space to attack, it’s about the quick combination play around the penalty area to go from first gear into fourth in the blink of an eye. It’s what’s needed to beat teams who sit deep.