Advantage Ole? Manchester United’s most notable league win of the season maintained Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s 100 per cent record, showed a strategic sense many wondered if the Norwegian had and came at the expense of Mauricio Pochettino, the favourite to be the next permanent manager at Old Trafford.
As Solskjaer strengthened his case, United went level on points with Arsenal to in effect ensure that one of their two greatest rivals, Liverpool and Manchester City, and not Tottenham Hotspur, will win the league.
Above all, it seemed a 90-minute indictment of Jose Mourinho. Solskjaer’s United were everything Mourinho’s team were not – bold and bright, fast and fearless, resolute and resilient in a second-half onslaught – to highlight their underachievement under the sacked Portuguese. Mourinho’s United lost 3-0 to Spurs in August. Solskjaer’s side won the Wembley rematch.
They were still reliant on David de Gea for a series of saves, bringing back memories of his extraordinary display at Arsenal last season, as Tottenham made a huge contribution to a high-calibre game, but it felt both vintage United and with a sense of renewal.
Take the scorer of the sole goal. Marcus Rashford is the personification of Solskjaer’s United: young, quick, talented and often overlooked by Mourinho. Paul Pogba feuded with the Portuguese and has flourished under the Norwegian.
They were an emblematic double act with the Frenchman setting up the decider and coming close to scoring himself. He forced Hugo Lloris to make a hat-trick of saves in a 10-minute spell as he looked at his marauding best, even if his display was marred by a high challenge on Dele Alli that may have merited a red card.
But the initial inspiration came from the dugout as Solskjaer suggested he has the tactical prowess to prosper at this level. He imitated Tottenham’s system and deployed a midfield diamond for the first time in his reign but, rather than looking to negate Spurs, it was an attacking gambit that worked so well that Pochettino changed shape for the second half. Solskjaer succeeded in using his strikers in space either side of Spurs’ central defenders and behind the full-backs.
Rashford escaped to draw a save from Lloris. The warning went unheeded. Rashford evaded Jan Vertonghen to meet Pogba’s glorious diagonal pass and drill a shot beyond Lloris.
It was immediate vindication for Solskjaer, who had begun with Romelu Lukaku on the bench again, while the injured Alexis Sanchez did not make the matchday squad, though he should resume training this week.
Yet, despite United’s fine first half, Tottenham had the majority of chances. Harry Kane had an effort blocked by Nemanja Matic and a goal chalked off; he was offside when he diverted Alli’s volley over the line. De Gea made fine saves from Kane’s drilled shot, low header and late effort but a forward who has never scored in seven successive games saw his run end at six.
De Gea also blocked Alli’s header and then the midfielder’s shot while his finest stop came at the expense of Toby Alderweireld, repelling a volley to deny a player who might have joined United in the summer. The number of Spurs’ chances illustrated that United’s defence is far from watertight.
But it was a damaging day for Spurs. Midfield injuries have given Moussa Sissoko a huge workload this season and while the Frenchman has relished it, it took a toll when he pulled up with a groin injury.
With Son Heung-min now off to the Asian Cup, Pochettino has lost two of his regular side and, perhaps, his chance of making Spurs champions this season. If potential future employers hurt him, they also gave him reasons to move north.