Tottenham 0-1 Manchester United: 16 Conclusions

1) It was never really about “attack, attack, attack”. Paul Pogba’s comments after a disappointing draw at home to Wolves in September became emblematic of the inner turmoil Manchester United faced under Jose Mourinho. This was a pragmatic manager whose style was completely at odds with the vibrant squad he had assembled.

Instead, it was more to do with aspiration, adventure and attitude. To “attack, attack, attack” with reckless abandon was never the fabled ‘United way’. But to approach games with positive intent and a modicum of freedom has always been the minimum requirement; to have plans and tactics based around scoring as opposed to simply not conceding was the demand. At their worst under Mourinho, United went into games first and foremost hoping not to lose.

United’s trip to Tottenham was daunting, but they at least approached it wanting to win, to take the initiative and to set the tone instead of having it set for them. They matched Spurs in a hell-for-leather first half before relying on the delicate combination of fortune, David de Gea and terrible finishing in the second. This was not “attack, attack, attack”, but it never had to be; it was only ever about ambition.

 

2) It could be argued that Mourinho’s demise began in this fixture last August. United slipped to a 3-0 home defeat to a side that had invested nothing in the summer, and the club’s public response was baffling. Luke Shaw hailed an “outstanding” first half, while Mourinho said “we were so, so, so, so, so, so good”. The Portuguese then used the scoreline to point out how many Premier League titles he had won in comparison to his counterparts.

Even after the game many others indulged in the suggestion that United had been excellent in the first half, and that it proved Mourinho could still be a success. Again, this was a side that had been drawing a match 0-0 at half-time before going on to lose by three goals at home.

United had two shots on target in the first half of that Old Trafford defeat, conceding one. They had three shots on target in the opening 45 minutes here at Wembley, allowing none and scoring once. If they were “outstanding” five months ago, they were bloody sensational here.

 

3) Yet Tottenham were orchestrators of their own downfall. It could be said that they shot themselves in the foot but, with 21 efforts, 11 of which were on target, the chances are that they would have messed up their aim when pulling the trigger.

De Gea deserves immense praise for a performance akin to his heroics in December 2017’s win away at Arsenal, but Tottenham’s finishing was so poor. Harry Kane and Dele Alli were particularly guilty of failing to properly place their shots, giving one of the world’s best keepers margin for success. That is often all De Gea needs.

United were hardly considerably better, having eight shots on target themselves and squandering plenty of opportunities. But the match was settled by the one true moment of quality in front of goal. Marcus Rashford’s finish was exquisite on a day it really had to be: both keepers were brilliant.

 

4) Rashford has now started all five of Solskjaer’s Premier League games as a central striker. Considering just 18 of his 42 Premier League starts under Mourinho came in that position, he is grabbing the chance with both hands.

Opportunity has knocked, and Rashford has answered. Pogba’s role as Mourinho’s antithesis means his transformation is both more obvious and far easier to examine, but Rashford’s development under Solskjaer has been startling. He has scored four goals in his last five games, having netted just four times in his previous 33.

Solskjaer himself would have been proud of the finish, latching on to a beautiful Pogba pass and taking one touch before firing low across Lloris into the far corner. He is no longer a pawn used by his manager to prove his faith in youth; he is now on centre stage where he belongs.

 

5) The goal ended with a moment of individual excellence, but started with one of individual error. Rashford’s finish was as delightful as the Pogba pass that preceded it, yet it was Kieran Trippier who laid the groundwork.

Having already been caught out of position numerous times in the first half, the right-back found himself in possession and under no real pressure on the halfway line. Instead of choosing the easy pass backwards or down the channel, he inexplicably lofted the ball in the general direction of the central midfield. It was well anticipated by Jesse Lingard, but could not have been more telegraphed if it was behind a paywall and employed Sam Wallace as its chief sports writer.

Trippier has been a liability since returning a summer World Cup hero. The problem is that while he is often central to Tottenham’s attack, he is often crucial to the opposition game plan too. There is a reason he is targeted as a point of potential weakness. His delivery is such that no player created more chances than his three, but there will be days when his productivity going forward cannot outweigh his deficiencies going back. It was no coincidence that more than half of United’s attacks (50.4%) came down his side.

 

6) Tottenham actually enjoyed the better start. The first real sight of goal came after eight minutes, when Harry Winks started and almost finished a slick move. The midfielder picked up the ball in his own half on the left-hand side and played it to Christian Eriksen, whose first-time ball into Heung-min Son was sensational. The South Korean’s skill and hold-up play created the chance for Winks, but his effort was so wide that it did not even go out of play.

Winks was Tottenham’s jack of all trades, combining attacking impetus (three shots) with defensive solidity (five tackles and three interceptions). He misplaced just one of his 46 passes throughout which, considering he was practically alone in central midfield for large periods due to Moussa Sissoko’s injury, is quite incredible. Tottenham will be disappointed with both the result and certain aspects of their performance, but Winks thriving despite the added responsibility was the biggest positive.

 

7) United’s approach soon became clear. The wide forwards were absolved of defensive liability, with Rashford and Anthony Martial granted licence to stay as high as possible at every Tottenham attack. Any time United would retrieve the ball, it was sent long, over the top to either man. It bypassed the central midfield and left two of the Premier League’s most deadly one-on-one forwards in such situations. With Jesse Lingard supporting, United were arguably more dangerous when Tottenham had the ball in their half.

With such fast, skilful players up front, United could almost instantly turn defence into attack. They were making a maximum of three or four passes before taking a shot, whereas Tottenham’s build-up was a little slower and considerably less incisive.

 

8) If Rashford and Martial were the main attacking cogs, Lingard was the oil that helped everything run smoothly. His movement ensured at least one of Tottenham’s centre-halves were constantly occupied, and he helped cut off their passing lines into the influential Winks. Solskjaer made a point of praising “the defensive job that Jesse does”.

United revelled in the spaces he helped create, and his interception for the goal was as important as Pogba’s subsequent pass. He would not even make the top five if listing United’s best players, but he would be towards the top of the list of their most important. It is a skill in itself to improve and facilitate those around you.

 

9) Soon after Kane’s disallowed goal – for which the linesman deserves immense credit – the breakthrough was finally made. But the hosts were not the ones celebrating.

By the time Rashford scored, United had actually started to sit off. They had three shots in the opening 20 minutes, but just one in the next 24 as Tottenham started to become a little more wary of being hit on the counter. They were making much better decisions in possession – until Trippier took great exception to such maturity.

One minute before the goal, Sissoko had been substituted due to a groin injury. The Frenchman pulled up while sprinting and struggled through before finally succumbing to the pain, with Lamela a rather unorthodox replacement. Winks, albeit for a brief period just before half-time, was a one-man midfield.

Sissoko had been performing the vital role of babysitting Trippier beforehand, positioning himself deep to cover for his forward runs. He stuck much closer to the right back in comparison to Winks with Ben Davies on the other side.

As aforementioned, Trippier had been making similarly thoughtless decision throughout. The only difference here was that he had no-one to rescue him. United were as ruthless as he was rueful.

 

10) United had only ever held a half-time lead away at a fellow ‘Big Six’ side once in 13 Premier League attempts under Mourinho, so this was hardly a familiar position to find themselves in. Tottenham would surely learn from the first half and adapt, shoring up the defence and attacking with far more purpose.

So it proved. Kane and Alli had shots saved within five minutes of the restart, with the former having another attempt soon after. De Gea held firm.

But United were as interested in extending their lead as they were defending it. They responded in kind, Pogba forcing three smart saves from Lloris in an eight-minute spell where Tottenham found themselves on the ropes again.

While it felt as though Tottenham were attacking at will in the second half, it should be noted that United had as many shots in the final 15 minutes (3). Far from clinging on for dear life, they were enjoying the ride.

 

11) As every Tottenham question was met with an emphatic answer at the hands – or, more often, feet – of De Gea, it became a case of what Mauricio Pochettino could change in terms of either tactics or personnel.

His scope was limited. A bench containing one goalkeeper, three central defenders and one youth midfielder hardly inspired, while Lamela had already been brought on.

If the sight of Fernando Llorente replacing Winks with nine minutes remaining as Tottenham’s second and final substitution does not convince Daniel Levy and his manager that at least one new recruit is needed in January, nothing will. Tottenham are still one of precious few clubs left in four competitions, but their squad is being stretched beyond its limits as the fixtures continues to pile up. Spurs are in an enviable position that they are more likely to bottle in the transfer market than on the pitch at this stage.

 

12) That said, Pochettino’s change effectively ended Tottenham’s hopes of salvaging anything from the game. The kitchen was already packed with chefs by the time Llorente donned his white hat and jacket; they needed someone to supply the ingredients.

It was ostensibly an attacking substitution, replacing a midfielder with a striker. But Tottenham ceded control by removing Winks, and without control, creativity is awfully difficult. Llorente joined Kane, Son, Alli, Lamela and Eriksen up front as the hosts tried to force the door open. Had they carried on trying to pick the lock, it might just have worked.

 

13) Then again, United might never have backed down from this particular fight. Victor Lindelof was impeccable at centre-half, and was in no mood to have his day of rest so rudely interrupted.

It speaks volumes that, under the last regime, Lindelof was only ever praised for setting “a fantastic example” by playing through the pain barrier, and thus exacerbating an injury. He seemed like much more of a leader at Wembley as he marshalled the defence to another clean sheet against one of the country’s best attacks. The £30m centre-half has arrived, albeit 18 months late.

 

14) Yet the best defensive performance came from a United midfielder. Ander Herrera laid the foundations for this victory, adding to his catalogue of excellent displays against elite opposition.

The 29-year-old was United’s silent assassin. No teammate completed more passes in Tottenham’s half (88%) as he started attacks as discreetly as he stopped and stalled the opposition’s. He recovered possession more times than any player (10).

Herrera has always been particularly useful in this sort of game, when United require someone who relishes the fight. This showcased the Spaniard at his best: half balance, half nuisance.

 

15) For Solskjaer, this is quite the statement. No longer can a run of games against the Premier League’s bottom half be scoffed at: Tottenham at Wembley is quite the scalp.

As with any result, it demanded plenty of good fortune. However, there is only so far that employing one of the best keepers in the world can be attributed to luck. De Gea is there for a reason, after all. And even his displays were on the wane previously.

The second half may have left plenty to chance, but the first half earned them that right. United had a full week to consider their approach to this game and it showed: they set up to expose the opponent’s weakness, rather than devising a plan to safeguard against their own issues.

The starting line-up Solskjaer chose offers the most balance possible with United’s squad; Mourinho never named it throughout his time in charge, but his replacement has now done so twice. A fast, direct attack is supplemented by a midfield in which the star is given the platform he needs. Even the defence is starting to come into its own.

The Norwegian has not performed miracles. He is not even getting these players to play to their potential. He is simply ensuring this team adds up to the sum of its parts, instead of a fraction thereof.

It is the second time Solskjaer has beaten Pochettino 1-0 away in a Premier League game. Cardiff had 32% possession and 13 fewer shots than Southampton in April 2014 but managed to escape with all three points; they had 38% possession and eight fewer attempts here. By repeating the trick on a far grander scale, Solskjaer proved he is far more than a welcome face at a time of need. Any manager who can out-think one of the best coaches in the country deserves to be part of any conversation in the United boardroom.

 

16) Save for emulating his role model and sending a club employee to Dubai to watch United train for a week, Pochettino could not have done much more with the tools at his disposal. He cannot be held accountable for such unexpected profligacy.

The seeds for this setback were sown in the summer, when the necessary investment was not forthcoming. If it engenders a greater togetherness within the squad, it bloody knackers them eventually too.

Pochettino is now counting the cost of an injury list that could include Kane after Phil Jones Phil Jones’d him late on. With Son away for international duty, it leaves them ever so short.

But it is in midfield where Tottenham are feeling the pressure, particularly after Sissoko’s knock. It feels like this story could have been different had Eric Dier been available. As unspectacular as he is, he offers stability and reliability.

It will hurt Pochettino that he was initially out-thought by a man with far more limited coaching experience, but most of the issues were rectified after half-time. Manchester United won this game in the first half, but Tottenham lost it in the second.

As with Liverpool’s defeat to Manchester City earlier this month, this one can be chalked up to fine margins. Sometimes you just come up against the world’s best keeper on his most determined day.

Matt Stead

 

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