Cristiano Ronaldo did what West Ham feared he would do for Manchester United’s winner: Samuel Luckhurst

One of the privileges of covering Manchester United from the Old Trafford press box is the seats reserved for MENS are located adjacent to visiting team analysts.

Former Blackburn and Scotland midfielder Billy McKinlay and Nottingham Forest and England legend Stuart Pearce sat side by side at a spacious desk on Saturday, separated from the center section where reporters are as crammed as commuters in the subway.

It was deep in the second half that McKinlay identified a problem. “Ronaldo in that pocket is killing us again,” he said ominously.

Aside from his match-winning moments, the most impressive attribute Ronaldo has displayed at United is his dismissals upon leaving. Whether it’s a flick, a header or a chest, his muffled touches from long balls are immaculate and worthy of a Twitter montage. Ronaldo sent Bruno Fernandes to set up Mason Greenwood at Brentford last week.

It is a double-edged sword to witness a final as sparkling as the one on Saturday. Try to absorb it, getting as much color as possible in real time before checking out the replay. And still, you can’t take in every detail as you frantically tap the keys.

The most prominent feature of the United winner was the combined three substitutes. What Ronaldo did before feeding Anthony Martial was just as significant. Ryan Fredericks misjudges Alex Telles’s hoik and his ill-timed header lands on the marauding Ronaldo in the pocket. And that’s where Ronaldo comes in to kill.

Fredericks is already out of position, having followed Jarrod Bowen down the right flank, when he desperately chases after Ronaldo, who also has Declan Rice at full speed. Fredericks panics when, in hindsight, he should leave Rice to shut down Ronaldo and track back.

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But he doesn’t, and that frees up not only Martial but also Edinson Cavani in the left channel, creating overload. Martial takes on Craig Dawson and Kurt Zouma is so aware of Cavani in the overlap that he tries to catch him offside.

Zouma and Cresswell appeal for offside
Zouma and Cresswell appeal for offside

Unbeknownst to Zouma, left back Aaron Cresswell is stuck behind by Marcus Rashford long enough to sideline Cavani. Just like Zouma, Cresswell’s hand goes up as Martial plays the pass and he disengages. Rashford turns on and poaches the winner.

While changing the genre of the match piece after the raucous finale, McKinlay’s quote made the cut in the penultimate paragraph to up the payoff when the idea was headline-worthy.

Ronaldo’s assist for Cavani at Tottenham in October came out of the pocket and Donny van de Beek jumped off a disinterested Ronaldo at Watford when he could have headed on goal.

Until Rashford’s fourth ‘Fergie Time’ winner in the Premier League, United’s fight with West Ham was memorable only for Ronaldo’s theatrical repertoire. Mason Greenwood was punished for his greed, Harry Maguire booked for heading the ball to Ronaldo (he was offside) and referee Jon Moss’ competence was questioned.

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All that frustration was channeled into those four careful touches in the 93rd minute that created a three-on-three and took two West Ham defenders out of the game.

The United players savored the victory and stayed long after the game was over. Chris Armas, the assistant coach, approached Ronaldo, not blinded by his broad smile, and they laughed before shaking hands and hugging. Maybe it was all part of the plan.

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Long before Rashford struck, a colleague overheard West Ham analysts advising David Moyes and his staff to freshen up a tired team with more substitutions. Michail Antonio, castrated by Raphael Varane and Harry Maguire, was recommended to go out. Those on the bench thought otherwise. Fredericks was West Ham’s only substitution and effectively caused the decisive breakaway in the 93rd minute.

“Good evening David, that must feel like a real kick in the teeth,” said the evening standard Jack Rosser said on the post-match Zoom.

The answer consisted of nine words: “B—-go with that result, Jack, that’s for sure.”

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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