Opinion: Analysis undersold Reds' performance
Wembley at the weekend was rightly billed as the biggest test for Manchester United since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s appointment as caretaker manager. It was one the Reds passed with flying colours, contrary to the prediction of many experts within the game.
As is the case with most fans, I would suspect, I consume more media when we have such a positive result and it has been interesting to take stock of the reaction to a tremendous team performance and, even better, the deserved three points.
It does seem fair to say most people expected United to come up short against Tottenham Hotspur, dousing the feelgood factor of the Christmas and New Year period. Spurs represented formidable opponents, having won their previous three games with 11 goals scored and none conceded. In fact, had it not been for the match before that spell, the home loss to Wolves, the North London club's form had been rather spectacular. They had picked up nine wins from the other 10 games and the one exception was a 1-1 draw at the Nou Camp against La Liga leaders Barcelona, which ensured qualification for the Champions League knockout stages.
So it was a daunting examination for Ole’s side and there had been some talk that the free-flowing system, which has yielded such positive results since his appointment, would need to be ditched for a more pragmatic approach in order to avoid coming unstuck. Instead, United maintained bold tactics and that stance certainly paid off in the first half.After threatening with a number of breaks, Marcus Rashford scored before the interval, at a time when Spurs had failed to register a single shot on target. According to Opta, the Reds were the first team to shut out Tottenham to that extent in a first half since Burnley in August 2017, when the Clarets forced a 1-1 draw at Wembley.
So far, so good then. But surely everybody, even the most ardent Red, expected a response from the hosts in the second period and a spell of sustained pressure. Tottenham still harbour outside hopes of the Premier League title and had scored in every previous game this season in all competitions, bar the slim 1-0 defeat to Manchester City in October.
Yet United could, and probably should, have extended our lead – despite Spurs’ lightning approach to the restart. Paul Pogba managed to get into three extremely promising positions and, with more luck, would have found the net. His French international colleague Hugo Lloris denied him twice and there was the moment, as Anthony Martial rolled the ball into his path on the edge of the box, that sent the heartbeat racing in anticipation of a second goal.Of course, by now, Mauricio Pochettino’s men were also creating chances of their own. When Dele Alli streaked through, we relied on David De Gea to block the England international’s effort and the Spaniard would soon become the obvious contender for Man of the Match.
This is undeniably true, as 92 per cent of fans who voted on our official app agreed, and some of his stops were out of the top drawer, particularly the near-post save from Toby Aldweireld from a corner. However, we’ve come to expect nothing less from our brilliant no.1, and I would have been surprised had any of the efforts beaten him, because his positioning is so exceptional. The pressure built and Spurs had opportunities to claim a point, even if we continued to look to break away and wrap up the win.
Despite an extended amount of injury time, we held out and the relief was obvious. This was an exceptional result and a huge team effort was required to get over the line. Pochettino afterwards declared the second half-display to be the best of his time at the club and credit must go to Spurs for their part in a compelling encounter.
A quick glance at the back pages of the newspapers in the media office at the Aon Training Complex on Monday confirmed some of the narrative I had heard on the radio driving in to Manchester. This was now all about De Gea, the super keeper who saved the Reds’ bacon and prevented a hefty defeat.
Was this really the case and a fair representation of the 90-odd minutes that had unfolded on Sunday afternoon? He didn’t have a save to make in the first half as, for me, we deserved our lead with Ole’s tactics proving spot on, no doubt after meticulous planning in Dubai. Tottenham pressed for an equaliser, as we knew they would, but a defence that has been much maligned in sections of the media kept a third successive clean sheet and withstood the onslaught.
United attacked with pace and intent throughout the game. Even with our backs to the wall and being forced to retreat late on, we managed to create some element of danger at the other end. It was agonising as the clock (slowly) ticked down but this just makes victories like these sweeter, like you have really had to work for them – even as a supporter!
And, you know what, watching a team that is stringing a run of good results together affects everything. A positive attitude, and renewed confidence, means – and this may be impossible to explain – you feel luckier and less expectant that things will go wrong. This is not to say there was any fortune about our latest win because, for me, that take on proceedings is, quite simply, wrong.
The pre-match suggestion was that United could not keep the brilliant run going – that we would fail a test away to a side that is above us in the table and who had already left Old Trafford with a 3-0 triumph. Things did not go to plan in that respect and, perhaps, there needs to be an explanation as to why the result predicted by many did not materialise.
It is far easier to put it down to a fluke occurrence, a one-man show by our world-class keeper in ensuring a victory viewed by some as smash and grab or stealing the points. That might suit certain agendas and who knows what impact this one scoreline will have in the overall scheme of things? But what I do understand, and appreciate, is the effort, application and huge amount of expertise displayed by the coaching and playing staff to pull off a display that has kept the smiles on everybody’s faces at the club.
Football has a habit of knocking you down when you least expect it. However, there is every right to be excited for each obstacle along the way and to be intrigued at how any further extension of this so-called 'honeymoon period' is perceived. We, the fans, are enjoying the ride at the moment, so bring on Brighton.
Let’s hope we keep meeting the challenges we are being set and see what the rest of 2018/19 has in store for us.
Reading this in our app? If not, you might miss some exclusive features not found on ManUtd.com. Download the Official App here.