At one point last night, it felt that Tottenham Hotspur would score every time they attacked. It was around the 50th minute and in the first five minutes of the second half, David de Gea had had to make three saves, two of them good ones, as Mauricio Pochettino's men attacked with the intent to score. However, that became the story of the second half as attack after attack from Spurs was thwarted by De Gea, with the Spaniard going on to make 11 saves in the period, a record for the season.
Fans across the world have seen the United goalkeeper put in such stupendous performances consistently, as he has been the club's best player since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson. However, after a slow beginning to the season post a poor World Cup, De Gea finally put in a performance everyone knows he is capable of.
Despite all of his heroics, this match was a big win for interim manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, as it extended his winning start at the club, making it six wins in six games in all competitions. It also answered the question of the Norwegian's ability to mix it up with the best managers in the league when the Red Devils face teams from the top six. A swashbuckling start to his tenure as United manager saw the team score 14 goals in four Premier League matches prior to the Tottenham encounter. However, it was clear that the team's cavalier approach would not work against Pochettino's side — a team thought to be an outsider in the title race.
The first half epitomised the controlled approach that Solskjaer had drilled in to his team for this clash as they pressed all over the pitch, prevented Spurs from getting a shot on target and transitioned at pace to try and exploit the space left in the channels by the north London outfit's full-backs playing high up the pitch. The 45-year-old former striker had decided he wanted Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial to play as wide forwards and use their pace and skill against the centre-backs. Jesse Lingard played almost like a false nine, disrupting passing lanes from the defence to Harry Winks at the base of the Spurs midfield and kickstarting counter-attacks with his ability to link play up.
The only goal of the game came from that plan working to perfection as Lingard intercepted Kieran Trippier's errant pass and laid it off to Paul Pogba, who then took a touch and put an exquisite pass into the path of Rashford, who applied the finish required for the ball to nestle in the back of the net. It was a culmination of some detailed work done during the previous week, as was acknowledged by both Solskjaer and Pogba after the match. Even though the French midfielder had a couple of chances to score in the second half, it was more about rearguard action as the hosts piled on the pressure. The United defence, though, held firm and had their goalkeeper to thank for as they were able to secure all three points.
Apart from the six wins, what Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has done is restored the confidence of the players and made the squad a happy camp again. Pogba is playing at a very high level, creating and scoring goals, Victor Lindelof has been very good in the centre of defence, and Nemanja Matic has raised his game. However, the biggest difference can be seen in Rashford and Martial as they are playing without fear, running at defenders, linking up beautifully and scoring goals.
By no means was it the perfect performance from Manchester United as they ceded the advantage territorially to Tottenham in the second half and invited a lot of pressure onto themselves. Some might say they had reverted to the style they were known for under Jose Mourinho. However, the tactical understanding shown by Solskjaer to make the subtle change in the attack that eventually led to the goal showed that he is more of a manager than he is given credit for, and that bringing happiness to a squad in trouble is not his only quality. He showed that he could go toe-to-toe with one of the best managers in the business and if his team can continue producing results like this, a top-four finish and an outside chance at the manager's role permanently are within his grasp.
Mauricio Pochettino, on the other hand, claimed that the second-half performance was the best in his four-and-a-half years at the club and that despite not getting a goal, they gave everything they had and a combination of sub-par finishing and a brilliant David de Gea handed them the loss. He, however, will be tense as Harry Kane looked like he had sprained his ankle at the end of the match. With Son Heung-min heading to the Asian Cup, the Argentine coach cannot afford to lose Kane for any period of time as his presence is crucial to the team's performances ahead of what is a very hectic run of fixtures.
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Updated Date: Jan 14, 2019 12:47:06 IST