Manchester United narrowly took the three points at Wembley in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first match-up against a top-five team.
As the first whistle blew, an air of anticipation circulated the grounds as no one could really call which way this match would go. For the first fifteen minutes, Spurs seemed to have the better of the chances, but for much of the rest of the first half United were on top, and they capitalised on this in the 44th minute as Rashford finished excellently into the bottom corner with all but one white shirt in sight.
The second half brought with it a battering of the United goalkeeper de Gea as the Lilywhites continuously failed to beat the Spaniard from clear-cut chances. It just wasn’t Spurs’ day and Solskjaer marched away with his perfect record intact.
United beginning to claw at the top four
Solskjaer’s first task, as a bare minimum, was to revert United to a respectable looking team and make sure they held a secure spot in sixth place. He couldn’t have done a better job of it and this victory means they are now level on points with sixth-placed Arsenal.
So, it’s clear that a top-four finish has become a very possible or even probable outcome for Manchester United. The Reds now face another run of very winnable league games and it is important for Solskjaer to continue to secure as many points as possible, especially with what could be an extremely challenging end to the season on the horizon.
The manager will also have to rely on a few slip-ups from Chelsea or Spurs if they are to grab a Champions League position which, as this game demonstrates, is not out of the question. Both of these London clubs are capable of dropping points here and there – Tottenham usually against top-half teams and Chelsea often against unlikelier opponents. Solskjaer will be eager to solely focus on his own team for now, however.
Spurs not clicking on the day
Although Tottenham managed to get 21 shots away on Sunday, there was a very visible lack of cutting edge to the team. For whatever reason, the front four just couldn’t quite produce the smooth attacking football we’ve seen in recent matches. The passes were often a little bit too long or too short, and a lot of the time the players just seemed to make the wrong decision entirely.
Even defensively the Lilywhites weren’t at the races, and the manner in which the goal was conceded will infuriate Pochettino greatly. Spurs could have been caught on the counter-attack on a few occasions in the first half and looked rickety at best.
Interestingly, Spurs played an unusual number of long balls forward, perhaps trying to beat United at their own game. It’s hard to determine whether this was an unreasonable approach however, as many of these balls ended up back in the hands of the away team – even Eriksen struggled to lift the ball over the back line.
In terms of Spurs’ title hopes, the hill they were trying to climb has now turned into a mountain with the gap between first and third place now stretched to nine points. Top four is surely now the solitary aim for Tottenham, who must continue to fend off Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United for these spots.
David de Gea’s stunning second-half display
Given that Tottenham didn’t have a single shot on target in the first half, David de Gea didn’t have an awful lot to do except take goal kicks. However, the lack of action didn’t stop the 28-year-old from putting out one of the best goalkeeping displays we’ve seen all season.
Perhaps none of the saves he made were up there with his best, but it was the magnitude of saves he had to produce that made the display so impressive. Tottenham peppered the United goal in the second half, producing 11 shots on target and forcing 11 top-class saves from the man in between the posts, albeit the finishing was lacking from the home team.
United probably wouldn’t have gained three points if de Gea wasn’t in goal and, although his credentials have been slightly doubted this season, there’s no arguing that the Spaniard remains one of United’s most important assets.
Son and Sissoko a double blow for Pochettino
Moussa Sissoko, who has been a machine for Spurs for the best part of the season, may have finally been stopped in his tracks when he was forced to exit the pitch with a hamstring injury just before the goal was scored. Tottenham immediately suffered the effects of this, not only by conceding but also during their attempts to draw level. Spaces that Sissoko previously made available with his runs were no longer present, and Spurs looked static and lacked a pivot in midfield.
With Son Heung-min now off to the Asian Cup of course, and with Dembele probably heading in a similar trajectory to Beijing in the near future, the Tottenham squad is getting stretched thinner and thinner. If Sissoko’s injury turns out to be serious, they could be facing a change in formation for the squad, or may be forced to stick Eric Dier back into the starting XI earlier than ideally necessary.
Pochettino and Spurs face a huge challenge while Son is away for the rest of January. The South Korean has been Tottenham’s best player over the last month and will be sorely missed. However, Lucas and Lamela will both be eager to impress in the coming weeks and should have enough talent to fill the gap.
Is Rashford one of the best finishers in the league?
Although Marcus Rashford was through on goal when he put United in the lead, he still had to beat Lloris from a pretty tight angle. The Englishman was not phased by this however, slotting the ball into the bottom corner away from the keeper’s reach. This is not the first time the young prodigy has impressed us with such a clinical finish this year, and the 21-year-old is quickly becoming one of the best finishers in the league.
At such a young age, Rashford, along with many other promising youngsters, still has a long international career ahead of him and is an important part of the England team at a very exciting time for fans.
The striker has also been one of the few individuals in the United squad who has shined throughout the first twenty-odd matches. Even when Mourinho was manager, Rashford stood out as a player playing for his team and his coach, and certainly has a top attitude to the game.