In six games, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has done more for Manchester United than his three permanent predecessors could. There were great moments under Moyes, van Gaal and Mourinho but with ‘Ole at the wheel’, there is an identity already.
The Norwegian shifted his tactics against Tottenham Hotspur but despite some important, small tweaks, it was still a fluid, attacking side with confidence, pace and energy at its heart.
Here he was, up against the favourite for the permanent United job, Mauricio Pochettino, whose side were second best in the first half and simply couldn’t beat David de Gea after half-time.
While United now have a distinguishable identity, and a proactive one at that, they remain a side who are far too vulnerable in defence to be completely confident of a top four spot.
De Gea had to be at his immense best to prevent an equaliser from Kane, Alli, Alderweireld and more. He parried, caught, kicked and punched with all parts of his body as he made six crucial stops in the second half. He made 11 saves in total, the second-most a goalkeeper has ever made in a Premier League game.
This was a vindication of the timing of United’s sacking of Mourinho. The five games prior to this one allowed Solskjaer’s side to build momentum. And at Wembley was where they proved that they are a proper team with a manager who not only ‘gets it’, but can also pull off some excellent tactical tweaks. He is the first man to ever win his first six games in charge of the Reds and with that, United moved level on points with Arsenal.
Story of the match
It was on this pitch less than a year ago that United showed just how woeful they could be under Mourinho. They conceded in the opening minute and got worse from there. On Sunday, they came out for the start with intent and a game plan that wasn’t rocked by an early error.
The clipped balls over the Tottenham defence that would come to define United’s 90 minutes were started immediately. They allowed the Reds to escape the Tottenham press. When they took too long on the ball and played it around the Spurs box, they inevitably sacrificed possession due to the quality that Pochettino’s side show when closing teams down.
Lingard slashed at a half-volley and hit over the bar while Rashford’s left-footed effort across the face of goal was stopped by Lloris.
It was Lingard, rather than Rashford, who took up a central position more often in the first half. Martial, too, was wide. Lingard’s position prevented Tottenham’s defence from playing out to Winks, who he marked. It was a small tactical tweak from Solskjaer that worked well on the whole.
Yet his side inspire no kind of defensive confidence. It only took Tottenham playing a smidgen quicker to scythe the Reds open. Kane played a perfect chipped through ball to Son, who burst forward into the box and gave Winks an excellent chance but the shot was dragged wide.
It was in the wide areas, where Rashford and Martial play with pace and confidence, that United threatened most. The latter took on five players in the Spurs box and got a shot away directed at the near post. Lloris denied him, but the young attacking pair had the Tottenham defence scrambling throughout the match.
Pochettino’s side resorted mainly to long shots, but took the opportunities to play through United when they presented themselves. That would be far more often in the second half, but just after the half-hour mark, Kane poked the ball into the back of the net. A fantastic decision from the linesman stopped Spurs leading. The ball had come off Dele Alli’s thigh and Kane had been marginally past the last defender. It all happened in a flash.
The end-to-end nature of the game wouldn’t cease until the final whistle in a game that felt like it was big, played in front of near 80,000 people.
Sissoko was forced off with a muscle injury sustained when he chased down a retreating Luke Shaw. Trippier started a brief shoving contest with Martial after United refused to put the ball out for a second time in as many minutes. A big game, and an intense one.
But it required something ruthless to open the scoring. The counter-attacks of United had been quick all game but not yet effective until the 44th minute.
Lingard intercepted a loose Trippier pass and before he had even controlled the ball, Rashford was sprinting up the pitch into the Spurs half at breakneck speed. Pogba received it and Rashford was awaiting, on the run, ready to control a glorious ball and take a touch before finishing low past Lloris across the goal into the bottom left corner.
That kind of composure from Rashford hasn’t always been on display and it’s something Solskjaer has mentioned. This was the one chance that strikers at top clubs have to finish in the hardest games. He did so, and moved to 40 goals for the club.
Wembley left in near silence at the half-time whistle just a couple of minutes later.
When they came out for the second period, David de Gea would deliver one of the finest performances of his career. The Spaniard produced save after save of the highest quality.
Kane was denied by a strong ankle stuck out. A header from Dele Alli was leaped towards and parried well away from the goal. A third potentially match-winning save stopped Alli again as the English forward had metres in which to find a finish when one-on-one with De Gea.
Lloris pulled off excellent saves himself at the other end between those chances, stopping Pogba on two occasions. The Frenchman had a header tipped over from a Young cross. His high position even with United leading showed just how Solskjaer has changed the Reds.
He then had a long-range effort blocked but chased it powerfully, winning the ball in the air on the edge of the box, taking it down and volleying. Lloris matched his effort. He did so again two minutes later with another go from his compatriot on the 18-yard line after a pullback from Martial.
This was a game of proper Premier League-intensity and no one had to be more alert than De Gea as things ticked over to the 70th minute. Whether it was Kane, Alli or Eriksen, De Gea was up to the standard, making nine huge saves in the space of half an hour. None were his best, but all could have been equalisers for Tottenham.
United can attack, but they still need to rely heavily on one of the world’s best goalkeepers to win games.
Llorente and Lukaku arrived onto the pitch, one to score the equaliser and one to kill the game off and hold the ball up.
The frustrated groans of Wembley were intermittently replaced with huge chants, but their team could not beat De Gea. A fast right foot kicked away a Kane shot with five minutes remaining.
And finally, in added time, De Gea had to do nothing. He watched Kane fail to latch on to a clipped ball into the box that headed wide of the left post. United fans sung ‘Ole, Ole, Ole’ for the sixth successive game as Solskjaer managed to do what no other United manager has ever done, win six in a row. This one, though, was so much bigger than any other. It was a sign of a proper turnaround.
Takeaways from the match
A Solskjaer style
Whether they worked or not wasn’t the main point. United’s performance at Wembley on Sunday showed that Solskjaer has implemented an identifiable style in this team already. Not only that, but his tactics showed some maturity, although left United’s weak defence exposed frequently. Rashford and Martial were split into the wide positions as Jesse Lingard often played a ‘false nine’ role which prevented Harry Winks from picking up the ball off the centre-backs. United constantly looked to play balls over the top to escape the Spurs pressure and while Martial and Rashford tracked back little, Solskjaer’s full-backs played deeper than in his first five games.
United’s poor defence
This Solskjaer side can attack, ruthlessly and with pace. But they still cannot defend well enough. Had David de Gea not been in sensational form in the second half, Spurs could have equalised, taken the lead and extended it comprehensively. There is space to be exploited, and although it took a while for Spurs to find it regularly, United must improve.
Spurs not ruthless
De Gea was in superb form, but that was not the only reason Tottenham could not score in the second half. They gave the Spanish goalkeeper a chance to deny them. Kane was quiet and then not clinical, Eriksen and Son too.
A coaching team effort
It was rarely just Solskjaer on the touchline for United. This was a victory that should be credited to his whole coaching set-up. Mike Phelan, Michael Carrick and Kieran McKenna were all constantly charging down the stairs to belt instructions. United’s revival has been a group project, and Solskjaer will admit that, too.