Jose Mourinho might well have had empathy for his Manchester United successor Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had Tottenham raided Old Trafford for maximum spoils.
The Portuguese knows more than most about the scrutiny and pressure that comes with the United manager’s job, himself seen off by an awful stretch this time last year that provided neither style nor substance.
For Solskjaer, Mourinho’s return will be followed by a trip to Manchester City, and the twin fixtures looked a daunting dual threat to a team and manager who before the Tottenham game were winless in three across all competitions.
At kick-off, Solskjaer was second favourite with the bookmakers to be the next Premier League manager sacked, trailing only Marco Silva, the struggling Everton boss who could not ended his team’s Anfield derby hoodoo.
But rather than bury the United great, Spurs – this uncharacteristically unpredictable early Mourinho outfit – granted Solskjaer a reprieve, with his future prospects also belatedly boosted by a determined home display.
Supporters certainly seemed to have Solskjaer’s back, still raucously chanting his name throughout, and United had, in Marcus Rashford, the star of the show.
Greater concerns surely belonged to Tottenham fans.
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) December 4, 2019
The usual stingy defending of a Mourinho team has not yet replaced the haphazard backline efforts of the final throes of Mauricio Pochettino’s reign, while even the encouraging attacking endeavours of matches one, two and three – 3-2, 4-2 and 3-2 wins – did not materialise here.
Dele Alli scored a masterful 39th-minute equaliser, teed up with a touch reminiscent of his breathtaking 2016 goal against Crystal Palace, but the rest of his work was of underwhelming 2018-19 humdrum.
Unable to get his recent star performer into the game, just about everything went against Mourinho besides that leveller.
At the same end of the stadium where little over a year earlier, three weeks before his departure, Mourinho fumed at a Rashford miss against Young Boys and drew the ire of United commentators, the England striker laid early siege to Paulo Gazzaniga’s Spurs goal.
Rashford’s first strike provided the opener, creeping under Gazzaniga at the goalkeeper’s right-hand post. A free-kick from Rashford was then whipped wide, and Gazzaniga touched a magnificent long-range effort against the crossbar before batting away a fourth attempt from United’s main threat.
Mourinho, meanwhile, took a blow to the knee as Harry Winks cynically chopped down Daniel James in front of the dugout – an incident that granted the Spurs head coach a greater role in proceedings to that point than Alli, stifled and increasingly frustrated.
The attacking midfielder’s stunning strike should have roused Tottenham but half-time intervened, and then so too did Moussa Sissoko, a man who painfully knows a thing or two about conceding penalties early in halves.
3 – Dele Alli has scored in three consecutive appearances in all competitions for the first time since March 2017 (four in a row). Rejuvenated. pic.twitter.com/ElwEVAv4xh
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) December 4, 2019
The felled Rashford tucked away the spot-kick for his 12th club goal of the campaign and, again, it was difficult not to be reminded of Mourinho’s failure to get the best out of such a gifted player. The striker represents one check next to Solskjaer’s name.
Much huffing and puffing followed from both teams, with United just about on top, but neither outfit truly convinced that their issues are behind them.
Unlike at times under Mourinho, United were indeed united, battling until the final whistle – led by Fred and the returning Scott McTominay – to protect the advantage secured by Rashford. Three points should ensure Solskjaer sees out the week, while a reality check might serve Tottenham well.
There is work to do for both United and Mourinho, long since separated, but each at least seem happier than at this time 12 months ago.
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