At this stage of the season, the league table rarely lies. Ten points and a goal difference of fourteen is an apt reflection of the distance between Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United for everything football about a football club. Spurs are nine points adrift of table-toppers Liverpool (with a game in hand), and must be considered as realistic contenders in the title race. While the narrative around Saturday’s match at Wembley should really be about Tottenham and their sustained ascendancy in English football, United continue to dominate the backpages and airwaves.
It has been a month since the 3-1 capitulation at Anfield threatened to be the harbinger of a dark, gloomy Christmas for Manchester United, and the celebration of free spirit that has been the last three weeks betray the despondency of the phase just gone by. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s approach has broken the shackles that seemed to have choked an entire team and returned an air of hope and joy that the club and its supporters desperately needed as cleansers after the toxicity of Jose Mourinho’s implosion at the club.
Cardiff City, Huddersfield, Bournemouth, Newcastle United and Reading don’t make for particularly intimidating opposition for a team of United’s pedigree, but the manner in which they were taken apart inspires a lot of confidence in the new, albeit temporary, coaching team.
Herbert George Wells, yes him, once wrote about the accelerated growth of plants in an environment devoid of gravity.
“With a steady assurance, a swift deliberation, these amazing seeds thrust a rootlet downwards to the earth a queer little bundle-like bud into the air. The bundle-like buds swelled and strained and opened with a jerk, thrusting out a coronet of little sharp tips that lengthened visibly as we watched. The movement was slower than any animal’s, swifter than any plant’s I’ve ever seen before. Have you ever on a cold day taken a thermometer into your warm hand and watched the little thread of mercury creep up the tube?”
The dialogue around this United team and the restraint placed on them by Mourinho’s pragmatist tactics has been long and arduous, much like the football they played. In five matches under Solskjaer, they have looked like kids allowed to run free at a park without having to worry about getting dirt on their clothes. More importantly, when they do come back home, they find a doting guardian, who will sit them down, cook them a hot meal and hear them tell starry-eyed stories from their time out.
When you allow Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard the physical and mental space to move, you leave them to their own devices, the enormous fountain of talent they’re blessed with. On more days than not, the opposition will wilt under the sheer pressure of their speed and guile.
While Solskjaer enjoys a near cult status at Manchester United, a thread even for the nostalgic to the glorious summers of Sir Alex Ferguson, it is no secret that Ed Woodward and the Glazers will have one eye cast towards Mauricio Pochettino. In his time at London, the Argentine has transformed Tottenham into an outstanding team brimming with exciting, young, English talents. His three podium finishes over the last three seasons, including one where his team racked up 86 points, leave no incertitude over his calibre.
Pochettino, feels a deep connection with Tottenham himself, musing recently about the prospect of managing the club for twenty further years and subsequently retiring with the whites. He has overseen the club turn into a domestic heavyweight and an opponent that teams have recently looked to avoid in Europe. Should he continue at the club and see them through to the titles that they have promised and fallen short of thus far, his place in English football history will be unquestionable. What can be questioned, though, is whether that prospect is alluring enough to keep him away from the sparkle and romance of Manchester United. He’s still a young manager, and you’d probably bet your money on him secretly hoping to land the job.
United currently lag six points behind the fourth spot, and as the season veers towards its final third, points will be at a premium and every gap must be closed down. A win at Wembley may not change their position on the table by much, but it will go a long way in reinforcing the faith in Solskjaer’s methods, and maybe, his case as the new permanent manager at the club.
It is the most fascinating of matches, not as much for technical quality as for the underlying repercussions of a victory or loss for either side. Rarely would a title contending team have come up in a match where the other team is auditioning both managers.
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Updated Date: Jan 13, 2019 15:21:56 IST