A 1-0 win in London. At Tottenham. On paper it reads like a real smash-and-grab. And it was. But the way Manchester United nicked these three points was a complete 180 to the tale such a result would’ve demanded just a month ago…
Jammy. Lucky. Yeah, Spurs fans can feel aggrieved today. Mauricio Pochettino, the home manager, had no complaints in the aftermath. They simply came up against an inspired goalkeeper.
But David de Gea would also pull off such performances pre- Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The Spaniard was outstanding. Inspirational. But so was what he saw in front of him. As mentioned, this was a smash-and-grab. But it was done by a United on the front foot. In their best traditions. Spurs weren’t locked down. Their play wasn’t stifled. Strangled. It was the opposite. Pochettino’s greatest concern wasn’t breaking down a packed defence. It was the two forwards Solskjaer insisted stayed on the halfway line. No matter the pressure. No matter the time Spurs had in possession. United’s manager always had two attackers waiting to turn Tottenham’s defenders around.
Six wins from six. With a bit of luck to help things along. But what’s wrong with being a lucky manager? Especially when it’s his initiative which is bringing this change of fortune.
It’s not luck that Solskjaer has decided to go all in with Marcus Rashford as his prime – central – striker. It’s not luck that the Norwegian has realised the best way to win with this group of players is by backing their attacking strength. And it wasn’t luck that produced the winner – via Rashford – at Wembley on Sunday. The reaction of the manager and his staff a clear indicator that a week’s work in Dubai had just come off. Something which the matchwinner would later confirm.
“We’ve done a lot of work in training on switching the play and little things like that,” Rashford revealed in the aftermath. “We’ve had a long week in training (in Dubai) and it’s been tough in training, but that’s the type of thing we’ve been working on. So for it to come out in a game is good for us as players and good for the staff as well.”
Claims that Solskjaer is simply the beneficiary of player power – that they’re now performing because Jose Mourinho isn’t around – is insulting to the caretaker boss. When he and his staff review Sunday’s win, they’ll be confronted by the same problems as what Mourinho struggled with. A loose back four. An even looser midfield. By rights, Spurs should have taken the three points. But Solskjaer has made a difference. On the training pitch. In team selection. He’s giving this group of United players a tactical platform to go out and win.
And as this column has already stated, it’s a platform over 11 years in the making. From the highs with Molde. To the lows with Cardiff City. And everything inbetween. These United players are the recipient of the decade long apprenticeship served by Solskjaer.
They may get torn to shreds at the back. But United will always have a chance with De Gea between the posts and the pace they have up front. In the Mourinho era, we’d say the manager can’t trust his back four. But this is Solskjaer’s time, though the sentiment remains the same. He’s leaning on those players regarded as the best inside his squad. And they all happen to be attackers. It’s a cliche, but it’s working for this United manager: attack is the best form of defence.
And suddenly this lot do have the makings of a great United team. And in the very best traditions of Sir Alex Ferguson. A great goalkeeper. Attacking, edge-of-your seat pace in attack. If Ed Woodward, United’s vice-chairman exec, can find his manager a new centre-half, they’ll be a step closer to completing the revival.
From Gary Pallister. To Jaap Stam. And Rio Ferdinand. Sir Alex broke transfer record after transfer record to find the right centre-half to buttress the style of football he wanted to employ.
Five years since the Scot’s retirement and Solskjaer is bringing back that approach. It might as well have been Fergie himself when the manager declared late Sunday afternoon: “We’ve got the best goalkeeper in the world. We’ve got blistering pace…”
And now he just needs that centre-half. If Woodward is still hesitating this smash-and-grab should strengthen the manager’s case. Give him what he needs and Solskjaer is proving he can deliver.