In an intensely fought match, Manchester United beat Spurs 0-1 at Wembley.
It was an incredible contest, where both sides took turns to dominate a half and create the most chances. United in the first, Spurs in the second. The match turned on a couple of moments of world-class skill, but what did we learn?
1. Paul Pogba is The Man
There’s been so much written about Paul Pogba, so much discussion about how good he actually is or is not, whether he’s worthy of all the praise and protection he is seemingly afforded by Manchester United. Well, this game (and, indeed, every game since José Mourinho go sacked) have shown overwhelmingly that yes, yes he is.
Pogba was superb at Wembley. Defending diligently, but most importantly leading the Manchester United counter-attacks with his precise passing. Unleashed as the midfielder with the most license to run forward, Pogba was constantly a problem for Spurs. After the match he referenced Frank Lampard as a stylistic inspiration, and that was clear in the way he attacked.
Spurs dedicated Moussa Sissoko to stop him in the first half, and for the most part Sissoko was doing a decent job. The job took such a toll on Sissoko (constantly sprinting to close Pogba down – and then having to chase United runners too) that he ended up hurting his hamstring and having to go off with just two minutes to go until half-time. So of course, one minute later, Pogba picked up the ball inside his own half and had the time to bend light with a glorious ball travelling like it was on the cover of Dark Side of the Moon, covering 50 yards of grass to end up perfectly at the feet of Marcus Rashford, allowing him to score.
Pogba’s second half was less spectacular, there were no more passes that warped reality, but he was even more of a totemic presence. With Jesse Lingard tiring it was so often the Frenchman, driving through midfield, who was United’s reference in attack. The end-point of all their attacks. He almost scored two goals himself but for some delightful goalkeeping from Hugo Lloris, but even with the score ending 0-1 he knew he had produced the moment of the match. Proving that he truly is The Man.
2. Pochettino is world-class
Spurs were struggling in the first-half. They were the dominant side in terms of possession, sure, and their intent was good as well – but even though they looked capable of scoring against Manchester United, every time their visitors attacked it looked like they could score. Especially once Moussa Sissoko, who had so ably shackled Paul Pogba, picked up an injury and had to go off.
So at half-time, Mauricio Pochettino tweaked Spurs’ shape from a midfield diamond to a more orthodox 4-2-3-1. Almost instantly Spurs came alive and began creating chances with an incredible frequency. Suddenly the kind of match many were expecting was the match that we all got, where Spurs were hammering United repeatedly and were only stopped by the supreme form of David De Gea.
It speaks volumes that even with a weakened squad compared to their top six rivals (even Manchester United, really), Spurs are still able to effect matches with simple tactical changes. Had Spurs’ players shot for the corners rather than within De Gea’s radius then the home side would certainly have turned it around. Mauricio Pochettino is a world-class manager and someone whose talents deserve more support in the transfer market than Spurs seem willing to give him.
3. Pace in attack is lethal
It’s such a simple concept, isn’t it? Having fast players in attack unsettles any opposing defence, because who likes having to defend someone whose sheer speed means that even if you make the right decisions to defend them, they could still obliterate you.
Manchester United under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer make full use of pace in attack. The fast players start and the team moves the ball from back-to-front at an incredible rate. That’s not to say they can’t also play the passing game if required to (such as 10 minutes into the second half when they had to quieten a rowdy Spurs), but it’s clear that the Norwegian wanted them driving forward with as few touches as possible.
United were raiding all evening at Wembley; and it was one such raid that led to their goal when Jesse Lingard knocked a loose pass down to Paul Pogba who the threaded an enormous 50 yard pass to Rashford. The Englishman finished with righteous precision and it was an entire vindication of Solksjaer’s approach.
4. De Gea dominant again
David De Gea hasn’t really had the best of times since last season ended. He conceded more goals than he made saves at the World Cup and seemed to have brought that funk back with him to Old Trafford. It wasn’t that he had suddenly become bad, but because United were very much bad he was shipping goals for fun.
Under Ole Gunnar Solksjaer he’s looked bright gain, but it wasn’t until today against Spurs where we really saw De Gea come out of his shell and be an obstinate Gandalf-in-Moria presence once again. Sure, a lot of the Spurs shots were close to the Spaniard, which meant that he was able to use those two Rings of Power he calls legs to repel Spurs shots with frightening frequency.
De Gea made more saves in the second half than any other goalkeeper has managed in an entire match so far this season. His stop from Toby Alderweireld at his near-post was particularly absurd, as he not only got his legs in the way but he repelled the ball away and out of danger. He looks back to his best, which is terrifying if you’re a fan of Manchester United looking useless.
5. Solskjaer passes the test
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was appointed with a very gentle run of games to ease himself into things. His first five matches were all very winnable. Now, sure, they weren’t gimmies and United had lost similar games under José Mourinho this season, but they were winnable. So many people didn’t know how to evaluate their initial winning run.
This game has proven that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is no soft touch. The changes he has brought to Manchester United are real and can be transposed to the most difficult games. United lined up in a system to nullify Spurs, and it worked – The Red Devils looked terrifying on the break in the first-half, attacking with real pace and gusto, looking like they could score every time.
And second half, when Spurs were throwing wave after wave of attack at them – even though they had Ashley Young at right-back and Phil Jones at centre-back, United still held firm. Sure, they needed some help from their goalkeeper but that’s what he’s there for! Moreover bar a couple of times when they got cut up, United were forcing Spurs to take bad shots that were easily savable by De Gea. If they had a top quality centre-back next to Lindelof that number would come down.
The win was the Norwegian’s sixth in a row in charge of United, a record only Sir Matt Busby can match. It’s been an incredible start to life for Solskjaer and winning here against a manager who many has anointed the chosen one at Old Trafford was a beautiful way to state his case for full-time employment.