United had to rely on a twice-taken penalty to earn their first home league win of the season

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For many a Manchester United fan this was what they had been craving: a bit of dull consistency. After a start to the season which has flip-flopped more wildly than a government policy initiative, finally on Saturday came an embrace of the predictable: victory over a West Bromwich Albion side yet to record a win. 

Yet if the assumption is that stability equates to efficiency, then Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team did their best to disillusion their fan base. Three points were delivered, a clean sheet was maintained, but ultimately the win was only achieved through a twice taken penalty. This was not a performance that screamed competence. Had Albion possessed anything approaching a cutting edge, it threatened instead to be one as abject and empty as the home defeat against Arsenal. Even from the comfort of victory, there was much evidence on show as to why United have struggled so at home this season. 

Because what became abundantly clear as this game progressed is that Solskjaer’s United are not very good at keeping hold of the ball. Particularly in their opponent’s half. Away from home, where the onus is on the opposition to take the attacking initiative, this presents less of an issue. Let them have the ball, and attack at full throttle on the rare occasions you take hold of it, is a plan that has so far gleaned maximum reward in the league. 

James Ducker's Man Utd briefing

At Old Trafford, however, United’s lack of precision in possession was all too abundantly clear against Slaven Bilic’s limited strugglers. Passes were hit too long or into spaces that had just been vacated by a colleague; ideas weren’t working, everything seemed a little off. This is perhaps not entirely unexpected when Nemanja Matic is anchoring the midfield. But the malaise infected even United’s most creative players.

Take the moment Bruno Fernandes, easily their stand-out success this season, strode forward towards the West Bromwich area and tried to send the substitute Edison Cavani in behind the defence. His flick pass, however, was marginally off kilter and hit the heels of a defender, spinning away to safety. Cavani then immediately returned the favour by playing a through ball into Fernandes’s path which instead went straight to an opponent’s feet. 

It wasn’t through want of trying: United’s players did their best to deliver a Hollywood moment. Marcus Rashford, Juan Mata and Cavani all engaged in elaborate dummies as crosses fizzed across the box. The trouble was, there was no one running in behind them to finish the job, so the end result of their cunning was, well, nothing. When chances did fall their way – and both Rashford and Antony Martial had sufficient to record a landslide – a lack of clinical efficiency allowed the former United trainee Sam Johnstone to excel in the West Brom goal. 

Watching from the sidelines, Solskjaer was all too aware of the issue. 

"We’ve got plenty of quality and sometimes the easiest – or the most difficult thing – is to play simple,” he said. “Sometimes today we wanted to over-complicate things. Yeah, we want players to seize moments of opportunity, but we need more flow, more rhythm, more passes, make the opposition move. It could have been simpler today.”

And the proficiency deficit running through his team meant that West Brom were within an overturned VAR decision of returning to the Black Country with a point. Driven on by Bilic’s constant yelling, they had their chances: there was Callum Robinson’s magnificent strike that hit the bar, David De Gea saving athletically from Conor Townsend, and the excellent Chelsea loanee Conor Gallagher seeing VAR deny him a penalty after Fernandes brought him down.

Solskjaer’s immediate problem is how to instil some simplicity ahead of his side’s Champions League tie against Istanbul Basaksehir on Tuesday. Unlike RB Leipzig, who arrived in Manchester keen to take control of the ball and were duly flattened on the break, the Turkish champions will sit back and wait for United to yield up possession as they mis-pass and over-elaborate. Perhaps the most helpful thing would be if Mason Greenwood had recovered from illness to provide Solskjaer with some ruthlessness in his finishing department. Because there is nothing simpler in the game than hammering the ball into the net.