The return of Jose Mourinho to Old Trafford promised drama and incident, and the home team and their supporters rose to the occasion. This was a vital result for Mourinho’s successor, who needed three points to halt a terrible sequence of recent results. Thankfully his side were less jittery than the Amazon Prime streaming service, and delivered at just the right time. Here are five things we learned.
1. Solskjaer Got it Right
Solskjaer certainly had a point to prove coming up against Mourinho’s Spurs team, who were coming off the back of two good victories. The past two United outings, away to Sheffield United and at home to Aston Villa, had been woefully inept for the most part. Performances had been flat, insipid, and lacking any energy other than very brief bursts. The line up against Spurs was picked with a clear attacking impetus. This performance represented what we thought the Norwegian’s ethos would be, but have seldom seen. Up front there was pace and work rate, and players were hunting in packs all over the pitch. The attitude of the players was one of hunger and enthusiasm, and they spent the first half as the clearly dominant side.
Solskjaer himself confirmed it was “One of the best performances of the season, definitely. We’ve had spells against Liverpool, Chelsea and Leicester but the first 40 minutes were excellent today”. It was difficult to predict how United would approach this game, with Solskjaer having become increasingly prone to a more cautious approach. There had been rumours circulating of a back three with Axel Tuanzebe coming into the side. Thankfully, however, United lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, and pressed Spurs high up the pitch. Over the course of the 90 minutes, United managed more shots (12 to 8), more corners (4 to 3), and possession was fairly equal (United had 47%). It was particularly the first half that showed a template that may be something to build on. There was movement and inter-play amongst the attacking quartet of Lingard, who seems to be returning to form, Rashford, James and Greenwood.
It will be fascinating to see how Mourinho progresses from here on with his new club. He also selected a positive and attacking line up, but in only his third game at the helm, received an apathetic response from his new side. Tactically, Mourinho was outmanoeuvred, which has certainly not been a recurring theme for managers coming up against Solskjaer. He obviously felt his side possessed the quality to come and dominate a vulnerable Manchester United. The fact is, United have played their best football against the so-called top 6 this season and remain unbeaten. It suits this United side to play more open and expansive teams, giving them room in behind defences to utilise their pace. There must have been a temptation for the Portuguese pragmatist to, to coin his own phrase, park the bus. To his credit, he avoided that temptation, but to his own cost.
Mourinho acknowledged “For 30 minutes, United were not just better than us, they were much better than us. They were better in their intensity, in the aggression, they were winning first balls, second balls, 50-50 duels… then we arrived in the second half (losing the early goal) and they played the game they wanted to play. They dropped the block and defended”.
2. Mourinho got a good reception
Despite the toxic final months of his tenure at Old Trafford, Jose Mourinho retained the support of large sections of the fan base throughout, who saw him more as a victim of the poor ownership and structures at the club, and an adjutant General in rebelling against a perceived lack of ambition and investment at board level. Of course, a lot of his gripes are legitimate, but there has been a lot of revisionism amongst the fan base about how successful he was at the club.
The truth is that he had alienated everyone at the club, both players and staff, to the point where his position was untenable. The fans on Wednesday night, though, largely bore him no ill will and provided a respectful welcome for him. Mourinho has been on a PR campaign in recent months to try and re-invent himself as a happier, more positive, and progressive manager. He obviously retains a good deal of bitterness from his time in Manchester, however. In October this year, speaking on Sky Sports, he stated “I am going to try and get a job like Ole has at this moment in the future, which is to speak all the time about the future and then you are protected about the present”.
No doubt he feels he was harshly treated, and his exit was too hasty. In the final months though, he cut a sulking and snarling figure, and served up football and team selections that was difficult to watch. It is pleasant that he received a respectful reception, but it is probably more than he deserves. It feels good to inflict his first defeat in his new post, and realistically it is a matter of when, not if, he develops a similarly toxic atmosphere with Tottenham and Daniel Levy.
3. Fred and McTominay dominated
The midfield of Manchester United has been nothing short of pitiful in recent weeks. Pogba’s absence has been keenly felt, and there is a lack of flair and creativity in his absence. Andreas Pereira could face criminal charges for stealing his living. The return of Scott McTominay is pivotal to any success this side will enjoy. He provides physicality, mobility, and a far more stable screen in front of the defence. He has grown into a leader and a genuine quality player. His improvement since last season has been marked and is possibly a consequence of the continued faith that has been shown in him. He is a mainstay in the team and has started to look at home. He does, however, require more competition for his place, and greater squad depth as he has already had to play a lot of minutes for this stage of the season.
The real star of the show on this occasion though, was the much-maligned Fred. During this match, the Brazilian amassed 21 accurate forward passes; 11 ball recoveries; 8 tackles; 3 interceptions; 2 clearances; and one key pass. Those statistics are exceptional. As the game wore on, Fred only grew in stature, and finally started to look like the £50 million midfielder that United thought they were getting back n the summer of 2018. A regular run in the side has seen him develop week by week, and this was without doubt his best outing to date wearing red. Fred has always been a willing runner and his effort can seldom be faulted. The difference on Wednesday night was both his effectiveness in reading the game – being in the right place at the right time; and maybe more crucially his quality on the ball. There are other factors involved, such as having the presence of McTominay alongside him, and the improved movement of the front players. Fred, though, showed an ability to play the ball forward with precision, variety, and into the right areas.
This was a Fred we hadn’t seen before, and hopefully represents a shift towards a much-improved midfield player that this squad so badly needs. Solskjaer reflected “The boy works hard. He’s creating a relationship with Scott which is very good for us – they’ve been consistently picked and that gives you confidence”. Confidence is a key word for Fred, and for this Manchester United incarnation in general. If Fred now finally feels involved and valued, he has shown he has the ability to contribute in a major way having struggled to adapt and integrate into this basket case of a club. A fantastic performance that deserves to be acknowledged.
4. Rashford has the X Factor
Thankfully, Marcus Rashford has finally been living up to his billing and his new contract in recent weeks, and has proven to be the talisman for this side. Rashford was the standout player on the pitch, scored both the goals, and set the tempo for his colleagues with his work rate and enthusiasm. He is loving being on the pitch and it has been a pleasure to watch. He terrified the Spurs defence who struggled with his dribbling and movement throughout. His old boss was aware of the threat he can pose: “As I always told, from the left and not as a nine, from the left. I knew it, I told the boys. I told them exactly the way he does things. He was good, he was really good”. Solskjaer continued lavishing praise: “It’s the best game he’s had under me. He was mature and strong against a good Premier League team. It’s like he was in the playground or in the back garden. We want them to have fun, there’s nothing dangerous out there – just 75,000 people wanting to see the best”.
It sounds like a cliché to talk about players performing with this sort of child-like vigour, but it rings true with Rashford. He is an instinctive player with outrageous ability. When he is confident and playing with a swagger, he is a massive asset to this team.
Importantly, though, he needs to have the right players and mentality around him. He struggled with leading the line over the early parts of the season and has really flourished with the return of Martial and in this case, Mason Greenwood. Greenwood deserves a special mention for his contributions in this game also. He was relatively quiet and would no doubt like to have been more involved, but his presence and movement as a central striker was crucial to the shape of this team. He kept defenders occupied and enabled Rashford, Lingard and James to have more space and freedom as a result. There will be many occasions in the future that we see his undoubted talent and goal-scoring ability – but he fulfilled an important role for the team on Wednesday and deserves credit on his first Premier League start.
5. Old Trafford brought the noise
There are some nights – and its nearly always nights – at Old Trafford, that carry a sense of occasion and importance. This was one of those nights. The fans were up for this encounter as much as the players, and in fact were probably a major factor in the zeal and motivation with which they started the game. There are many issues at the club and with this side in what has been a very disappointing season so far. The fans, though, remain resolute in backing the manager, and there is a strong desire to get behind these players. The noise was relentless and that counts for a huge amount in making Old Trafford a difficult place to come. Spurs certainly seemed rattled and below par for lengthy periods of this encounter, and the atmosphere undoubtedly had an impact upon the result.
The frustration, though, and it would be remiss not to mention, is the inconsistency of this side. It is a generally young team, and bumps in the road may be inevitable. Effort and application, though, are non-negotiable. There have been many games this season where the players have not applied themselves, have not outworked their opponents, and have not responded to the fans. This game has been met with enthusiasm bordering on jubilation, but it means nothing unless performances can be delivered consistently. That remains the question mark against this side and against the management. Can this result provide a platform to build on and a renewed confidence, or will it be another false dawn?
There is no time to savour what was certainly a crucial victory with the prospect of a trip to Guardiola’s Manchester City just three days later. That will provide a far greater challenge, and the effort and application must be at least duplicated, if not improved, for there to be any hope of a positive result. This victory may, though, have bought Solskjaer some time to demonstrate progress in his ‘long-term project’. Expectations have been lowered – but football matches still need to be won.