As much optimism as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the caretaker manger of Manchester United, brought to the fanbase in his first five games, there are still concerns toward the team that was worrying. Clean sheets were a bit hard to come by, mostly because of a late-game performance drop, and the quality of opponents are quite honestly not there with Cardiff, Huddersfield, Bournemouth, Newcastle and Reading. This all led up to the biggest match in the horizon: a meeting with the third-place Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley. The last meeting did not go well as Tottenham dominated United at Old Trafford despite Jose Mourinho featuring a heavily fortified squad defensively. This time round, though, Manchester United was coming in red-hot and seems to have found the mojo back.
The set up itself is certainly different. Solskjaer stuck with his preferred formation of a 4-3-3. The team did not change by much, but featured a slight bit of extra cautiousness that is not unwarranted for considering the quality of the Spurs team. To be quite frank, United was in no way dominating the match, but an attitudinal change helped the cause immensely. The more dangerous chances the Red Devils created were off the counter attacking, unsurprisingly, and it showed the versatility of this team as they can find ways to produce goals on the run or in a more dominating fashion while pinning defenses in their final third. It took a masterful through ball from Paul Pogba to Marcus Rashford and that was all United needed. The pass was so nice that it only took Rashford two touches to convert.
However, the defensive side of things should be considered as well. There are a lot of positives coming off from that performance. The first half was more evenly contested, and also early on in the second half. As we all know, it turned into the David de Gea show and that was the takeaway of the game. There was an inherent problem with United’s defense. It is understaffed as-is, but the problem was exemplified with the traveling team. Only five defenders were listed on the team sheet: Young, Lindelöf, Jones, Shaw and Dalot. The Spurs could theoretically figure out the defensive set up, especially center back pairing beforehand for tactical purposes and that could put a team way in front. Victor Lindelöf was the most solid of the back four in my opinion and it really showed how important confidence is to a player and how constant pressure in a park the bus set up can break a player. David de Gea had 11 saves and it was simply that kind of game that the keeper simply refused to get beat. This is the type of performance that cements his position as the best goalkeeper in the world. Ex-United keeper Ben Foster’s tweet put it the best in that de Gea makes saves look easy because he has that sense of knowing where to be.
However, the main tactic that decided the flow of the game is Solskjaer’s activeness in pressing. Spurs build up their play from the back, and this should allow United time to get back into defensive position at ease unless Mauricio Pochettino were to change up their style of play rather radically. Solskjaer rolled the dice by actively pressing Spurs’ backline with the likes of ball-playing center backs in Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen and it forced a lot of quality counter opportunities in the first half. Some other factors did play to it like Kieran Trippier’s tendency to over-commit to the attack, but it worked out fine and that was how United got the lone goal of the match. However, the constant pressing did lead to a good amount of fatigue to the players and United kind of played on their back foot from the 60th minute onward. Spurs actively looking for an equalizer at home certainly do factor in as well, but the press could definitely be managed better in terms of the span of usage. If it wasn’t for David de Gea, Manchester United will likely not get a positive result out of this match up.