Apprehension was rife before kick-off with the Reds in no great form and an ominous test against a decent Spurs side awaiting in a crucial game in the fight for Champions League qualification. After a nervy opening, Manchester United played arguably their best half of football since Sir Alex Ferguson retired.
An inspired Marouane Fellaini opened the scoring following a neat pass from Michael Carrick before roles were reversed as Carrick headed home from the rebound of a Fellaini header from a corner. Wayne Rooney then pounced to punish an error from Nabil Bentaleb before celebrating in style and the Old Trafford outfit were well on their way to a vital 3 points.
The second half lacked the excitement of the first, but the job was done and United saw the game out professionally. A stark contrast to the disappointing exit from the FA Cup, here are five things we learned from the victory over Pochettino’s men.
Despite a few nervy moments early on the Reds kicked into gear and were playing their football at a high tempo more akin to the Sir Alex Ferguson era than the previous 9 months under Louis van Gaal. There was purpose and penetration to the passing and Tottenham struggled to come to terms with United’s movement.
Criticism of a lack of tempo and too many backwards passes has been prevalent but on Sunday the Dutchman’s side came out flying and always looked a threat. In truth, United have been easy to play against of late with build-up usually far too controlled and deliberate. Pace has always been vital in the Premier League and it is hoped that the Red Devils continue to play at a higher tempo.
2) Fellaini Option
Marouane Fellaini was much maligned in his first season in a red shirt, but this season has seen vast improvement from the Belgian. An elegant, skilful player he is not, but variety is always a weapon in football and the midfielder is proving his worth this season.
The big man has played crucial roles in goals against West Brom, Chelsea and Tottenham to name but a few and whilst he was certainly overpriced, he is showing that he has a place in the United squad. His presence always provides the unwelcome option of playing very direct football for fans more keen on an expansive game, but against Spurs the Belgian bruiser proved he can play on the floor as well. He was an option and a threat all afternoon and went off to a deserved ovation.
3) Carrick’s Calming Influence
It’s likely no coincidence that the Reds’ form has dipped without the midfield maestro in the side. Carrick’s quality and experience bring so much to the side and the impact of a fully fit Michael Carrick was tangible on Sunday.
Undoubtedly United’s best passer of a football, the midfielder also gave licence to Fellaini and Herrera to break forwards and for the first time in a while the side looked balanced. United face a number of difficult games in the coming weeks and it is hoped that the seasoned campaigner will remain fully fit for the run-in.
With a greater balance in central midfield, United’s wingers were given licence to hug the touchline and stretch the game. Ashley Young continues to look reborn under Louis van Gaal and provided pace and incision down the left. There was a noticeable understanding between the former Villa man and Daley Blind who performed well at left-back and Tottenham struggled to contain United’s left hand side.
On the opposite wing Juan Mata, unquestionably playing away from his preferred position, gave his Dutch manager plenty of food for thought on his first start in the Premier League since January. Mata held his position when necessary but clearly had licence to drift inside and his link-up play with Ander Herrera was encouraging as ever. The Spaniard did himself no harm and with Angel Di Maria returning from suspension it will be interesting to see Louis van Gaal’s thoughts moving forwards.
One thing that was clear, though, was that the 4-3-3 system paid dividends, and with width, tempo and balance, United looked as good as they have for quite a while.
5) Top 4?
United’s victory, followed by Liverpool’s narrow win on Monday night, has certainly set up this Sunday’s encounter as one of the biggest North-West derbies in recent years. Liverpool are in ominous form, and with Arsenal also playing well, Southampton seemingly not going away, and Tottenham still in the mix the fight for the top 4 is as tight as it has ever been.
The Old Trafford Faithful can take great heart from a much-improved performance on Sunday and there is good cause for optimism with perhaps Louis van Gaal’s men beginning to click at just the right time. On paper there’s no doubt that Manchester United have the toughest run-in, but that may work in their favour, with little room for complacency.
The Old Trafford outfit have invariably performed better in the bigger games thus far and the Reds still have every chance of achieving Champions League qualification. There will be twists and turns between now and May and it’s important that United just concentrate on themselves.
This author is hopeful that Louis van Gaal’s side are hitting form at just the right time, but things are going to go right to the wire.