Three times in the last two months now, Manchester United have come from behind to defeat another big team from the Premier League. Following their 2-1 win over Chelsea at Old Trafford and their 3-2 win over Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium, their 2-1 win over Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley showcased that fortitude and resilience are now established facets of this Red Devils team under Jose Mourinho.
At the same time, Tottenham Hotspur exposed their fragile underbelly once more, failing to seize the moment after having taken the lead in what was an extremely important encounter for both teams, as they looked to cap their seasons by winning a trophy and continuing their journey on the path of development and evolution as a team.
Having started the season as teams looking to prove their mettle as a title-contender and a threat when it comes to winning trophies, Spurs end their fourth season under Mauricio Pochettino without a trophy while United have to chance to end their second season under Mourinho with their third trophy in two seasons, fourth in three. The north London outfit was unable to keep up with the pressure the occasion brought, and saw their early hard work undone by their own lack of bottle.
Manchester United now have the possibility of ending the season with their highest league finish since 2012/13, when they won the title under Sir Alex Ferguson. The FA Cup will just add to the team's development as a whole, built on principles of defensive hard work and offensive efficiency, just like Mourinho likes. Despite their failure to get past the round of 16 in the Champions League and questions about their style of play, they are coming together, slowly, into the sort of outfit the Portuguese tactician loves.
He might sound like a broken record, but he is right when he says that he knows how to win. Mourinho isn't just massaging his ego to feel good, he is stating the truth. Two trophies (and a Community Shield) in his first season at the club were great achievements, but their best league finish in five years and the possibility of winning the FA Cup, to go with a decent Champions League campaign is a good return on their first season back in Europe's top club competition.
Yes, Tottenham impressed in the Champions League, defeating Real Madrid and taking Juventus to the brink, but what characterised their season was their inability to seize the moment when given the opportunity against United, to show they had what it took to win trophies, to become a truly successful club and establish results that explain and justify their evolution as a team. Though their play on the field showcases them as an elite football team, their lack of mettle has also seen their position among the elite being questioned.
This will be the first season under Pochettino that the Lilywhites fail to improve on their league position from the previous season, as they look set to finish fourth, after finishing fifth, third and second under him so far. The fact that their coach undermined the FA Cup, saying that winning it would not make much difference to the team's development, shows that even though their focus and end goal is admirable, they have grossly underestimated the importance of developing a killer instinct when it comes to winning trophies.
Despite their good play initially and the goal from Dele Alli, most of Tottenham's players spent the rest of the match getting outplayed by their opponents. Christian Eriksen, Alli and Heung-min Son were, in particular, very adventurous and industrious going forward, but their inability to convert promising positions into goals proved costly eventually.
After starting the game slowly, as they tend to do against Spurs, there was a lingering fear among the United faithful that they would concede a second goal as well, just like they did when they were hit by the north London side in their recent league meeting, a 2-0 loss for the Red Devils. However, it was their response that stood out on the night, with them refusing to buckle under pressure. Instead, they chose to face it head on, grabbing the game by the scruff of the neck.
Paul Pogba has faced a lot of criticism this season, but he exhibited great skill and composure in midfield on Saturday night, using his physical attributes to perfection to go with his intelligence and ability on the ball. The manner in which he shrugged off Moussa Dembele, won the ball back and picked out Alexis Sanchez for the equaliser spoke volumes of the understanding he is developing as he understands his role in Mourinho's system better. On numerous occasions in the second half, he started counter-attacks, using his ability to make powerful, driving runs to perfection, before releasing a smart pass for Romelu Lukaku to run onto, creating a goalscoring opportunity.
There were many other heroes on the night for United — Sanchez showing his grit and quality in attacking areas, the ability to be decisive when presented with the opportunity. Phil Jones and Chris Smalling kept Harry Kane quiet the whole night, an impressive feat when their futures at the club are in question and so is their place in England's World Cup squad.
However, there was no one else who epitomised the Manchester United performance more than Ander Herrera. Battling in his own half throughout the match, cutting out dangerous passes and throwing himself into tackles and committing fouls when needed, busting a gut to make it into the opposition box when his team had a mismatch on their hands, and then caressing the ball into the back of the net.
Herrera is the mirror image of Mourinho on the pitch in many ways. He is not afraid of getting his hands dirty when the situation demands but possesses the quality to make the difference. He might use his game management skills a lot, but he knows exactly how and when to use them, and does it incredibly well. The Spaniard is also the epitome of what plagues this United side at the moment — a lack of consistency. After last season's high, he has been very patchy this season and has found it difficult to make it into the team.
However, as Mourinho has emphasised time and again, consistency is what this Manchester United team need to develop in order to truly return to the top and become a title challengers again. They are on their way on that path, a path full of different obstacles and challenges, and now, as Saturday night showed, they can count upon resilience and fortitude as two of their strengths as they embark on that journey.
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Updated Date: Apr 22, 2018 11:45:42 IST