The Big Match

United no longer hammering rivals

With Rooney injured, Martial carries burden to reward fans with goals against West Ham

It promised to be a historic occasion at Old Trafford. Manchester United's exclusive 500 club was set to open its doors to admit another member. Then, Wayne Rooney's ankle injury ensured he will remain stranded on 499 appearances for a little longer.

The United captain's place in the team has often been questioned.

Now, his critics can see if they are any more inventive or incisive in his absence.

Rooney's run of just two goals in 18 league games is damning but the struggles have extended to the entire team. After a superlative start, Anthony Martial has not struck in seven games.

Yet, there are legitimate questions if manager Louis van Gaal's sometimes stultifying style of football renders any forward's task an impossible job. The Dutchman's team have scored only seven times in nine fixtures.

Six have been drawn, four of them 0-0. They are United, but not as they were and not as fans like to imagine them.

Martial may be paired with a fit-again Jesse Lingard or a recalled Memphis Depay in the forward line if van Gaal perseveres with the 3-5-2 he surprisingly adopted at Leicester last week.

Or he could be alone in attack if the manager reverts to 4-2-3-1, with his decision complicated by defensive shortages that were compounded by the loss of Marcos Rojo, who has a dislocated shoulder.

But the uncertainty highlights United's struggle to find a successful formula.

It was a surprise van Gaal altered tactics to try and nullify Leicester.

It prompts the question of what he will do to halt West Ham. Slaven Bilic's team are intrepid travellers, recording a notable hat-trick by winning away at Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City.

Yet, this is an opportune time to face them.

Their most potent creator, Dimitri Payet, is injured.

So, too, their most potent striker, Diafra Sakho, and his logical deputy, Enner Valencia.

If the lumbering Andy Carroll is the lone striker, they may be stripped of counter-attacking pace.

The classy Argentinian Manuel Lanzini, who could drift in off the left flank, nevertheless offers incision. But West Ham have gone four games without a win, slipping from third to eighth.

They encounter a United team who have posted impressive numbers more recently than Rooney.

They have the best defensive record in the division, aided by eight clean sheets, and dominant percentages of possession.

The question is if they have the ambition, freedom and creativity to convert that into victories.

It is not merely a matter of personnel, with Martial and Juan Mata in their ranks, but one of attitude.

But after only witnessing three goals in five games, the Old Trafford public want to be entertained.

Rooney used to be the crowd- pleaser but United have had too few of late.


MANCHESTER UNITED V WEST HAM

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 05, 2015, with the headline 'UNITED NO LONGER HAMMERING RIVALS'. Print Edition | Subscribe