5 Things We Learned: Manchester United 1-0 Tottenham Hotspur

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1. Any win was a good win

It’s not that style doesn’t matter. We watch football to be entertained, we watch football for the moments of sublime skill and slick team play. However, for United fans, picking up the three points in such a tight encounter will be all that matters.

The game was certainly not a classic. The second half improved, but the theme of the game was that of two stern defences winning out against two blunt attacks. As the game progressed into the final ten minutes, and the Sky Sports coverage reminded us of the number of late goals Manchester United have profited from this season, Anthony Martial netted his crucial winner. It looked from the early stages like one goal for either team would be enough to be decisive, and the fact it came immediately following Dele Alli’s excellent chance, it is clear that this game could easily have gone either way.

Context is important, and coming on the back of the utter lack of ambition at Anfield, and the ineptitude at Huddersfield, three points were an absolute must if this United side can have any title aspirations. The quality of play was often lacking, not just from United but Spurs as well, but as a fan the minimum expectation is complete commitment and maximum effort. This represented an intense battle, with both teams aware that they must not lose just as much as they hoped to win. That translated to a chess-like tactical battle, with neither side wishing to attack in numbers. But as Mourinho stated after the game: “They gave absolutely everything. Every ball was like the most important ball of their career, the concentration and focus was there, and we cannot forget the quality of the team we were playing against”.

The relief of the winning goal was huge, and that was clear from the jubilation of the player’s celebration, although nobody told Anthony Martial’s face.

2. Mourinho adopted more positive tactics

In saying this, I again emphasise the word ‘context’. Mourinho made a positive selection in playing Rashford right up top with Lukaku, and Mkhitaryan in behind, albeit the emphasis was still on having a solid defensive unit. Compared to the tactical set up at Anfield, as a fan this was much easier to digest. Both sides set up with a similar tactical style – both played deep defensive lines, and allowed little room for fluidity in the formations.

As the home side, there is more pressure on United to seek the initiative, and certainly a draw would have been a better result for Pochettino than Mourinho. United therefore remained pragmatic and somewhat reactive to Spurs, but compared to other performances this season and last against the division’s ‘big six’, they did pose a threat and gathered attacking momentum as the game wore on. As per usual, Mourinho let Pochettino make his changes first, before he introduced Jesse Lingard, and later Martial.

Marcus Rashford was the liveliest attacking player on the pitch, and until his withdrawal – met with boos from the Old Trafford crowd – he looked the most likely to produce a moment to break the deadlock. The biggest issue with the Manchester United attack was that there wasn’t any great evidence of cohesiveness. The attacks often broke down or failed at the final hurdle as the runs didn’t match the passes, or the movement was too static and predictable. It’s a familiar criticism of Mourinho that his sides aren’t well coached in attacking terms. The truth is that this was not a good or flowing attacking performance, but it was extremely disciplined, dogged, and thanks to an uncharacteristic defensive blip from Tottenham’s back three, it was enough for the three points.

3. Mourinho trusts Ashley Young

In any of the games of consequence this season, Jose Mourinho has been relying on Ashley Young in whatever role he chooses to deploy him. Young is definitely a player he trusts to perform exactly the role he is instructed to, which is why Mourinho has consistently found a place for him. Against Spurs, he once again reminded us why he has become such a reliable commodity. He is not the match winning wide man it was hoped he would be when brought to the club by Sir Alex Ferguson, but as a wing back and full back he has offered a genuinely reliable option.

He possesses pace, tireless running, and a surprising level of defensive discipline and wily experience. In a perfect world, I would love to see a fully fit Luke Shaw powering his way up and down the left-hand touch line, but as time goes on it looks less and less likely that we will ever see him as a regular starter. Mourinho has referred to him being a player without a brain after all. But as an option compared to both Darmian and Daley Blind, Ashley Young offers greater athleticism, and increasingly a good level of quality in his delivery into the box which has not always been the case during his time at Old Trafford. His tactical discipline means that Mourinho will continue to turn to him in games where he is weary of the quality of the opposition.

Both Valencia and Ashley Young were excellent in this game, and provided crucial width going forward, whilst never getting caught too far out of position. The back three with Matic shielding afforded them both a little more licence to get forward, and they outshone Aurier and Davies on the day.

4. Pogba is Paramount

We maybe didn’t learn this today, but it was another reminder – Manchester United look a much better side when Paul Pogba is in it. An obvious statement perhaps, but it is so often the case that you only truly appreciate the value of a player when he isn’t there. At times, I watch Pogba and get frustrated that he has chosen the wrong option or attempted an ambitious pass. Since he has been missing from the side, the quality of play we have seen from Manchester United has dipped markedly.

Matic and Herrera both had good games from a defensive view against Spurs. They protected their defence, gave Winks, Eriksen and Alli little time on the ball, and along with the rest of the team maintained a rigid and disciplined shape. However, I am not convinced by them as a midfield pairing. Matic and Pogba seems to offer a near-perfect balance this season. Pogba had been liberated, in the knowledge that Matic provides a defensive tonic to his athletic marauding. Herrera is an excellent player but just does not compliment the qualities of Matic like the enigmatic Frenchman.

Pogba gives United an extra dimension with his incisive long range passing, his ability to hold the ball, and drive past players. Henrikh Mkhitaryan also seems to have suffered from his absence. The balance of the team has been altered, and without Pogba it lacks the same level of dynamism. He keeps other players occupied as he cannot be given space to dictate, and he also offers a greater physical presence that, with the additional absence of Fellaini, United are already lacking. His return to fitness will be paramount to any success achieved by United this season.

5. Martial is Magic

Any United fan already knows the immense ability of Anthony Martial, and his late goal provided another reminder. He had the intelligence to gamble of Lukaku winning the header, and a level of intelligent movement and link up with his strike partner that, basic though it was, probably wasn’t offered by Rashford. Martial is clinical, calm in front of goal, and possesses all the qualities to be a top-class centre forward.

It does beg the question, though – why doesn’t he start every week? Not only does Mourinho not seem to trust him, but he was dropped from the most recent French squad to accommodate Newcastle United flop Florian Thauvin. Contrary to Ashley Young, Mourinho blatantly doesn’t trust the professionalism, application and work rate of Martial. He refuses to deploy both Martial and Rashford alongside Romelu Lukaku.

Gary Neville commented after the game that he believes Anthony Martial operates at “around 85%” of his potential, and questioned his consistency, stating that he should be capable of scoring 20 goals in 20 games.

It would seem an odd time to seek to criticise him having just scored a crucial winner, but actually it is an acknowledgment of his supreme talent. Martial possesses the attributes to be a starter for any side in the world, but the fact is he has been a sub more often than a starter this season. He has been impactful from the bench, but he could be so much more. It is difficult to draw any conclusion other than there are psychological barriers he needs to conquer. Exactly what those barriers are is unclear, but if Mourinho’s tough love can eventually get the best out of him then a Martial winner in front of the Stretford End will be a familiar sight.

With the three points secured, a positive result against Chelsea next week is another pre-requisite as Manchester City continue to look imperious.

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