A dire defeat against Liverpool proved to be fatal for Jose Mourinho at Manchester United in 2018, but an even more humiliating loss to the Reds didn’t – somehow – spell the end for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and he continues to cling on.
That’s not to say it was a comfortable week for Solskjaer after that 5-0 annihilation at Old Trafford – if you believe the speculation, he probably wouldn’t have been in charge for Saturday’s trip to Tottenham were it not for Alex Ferguson coming into bat for his former player in the boardroom.
Solskjaer was afforded time, how much we can’t be sure, but it was enough to at least prevent United suffering three successive league defeats for the first time since December 1961, with the Red Devils so effective and clinical in a 3-0 victory that subsequently heaped the pressure on opposite number Nuno Espirito Santo.
Perhaps we should’ve seen it coming? “Lads, it’s Tottenham.”
There were a couple of major surprises when Solskjaer’s team was announced: firstly, that he was making just two alterations to the side that was humiliated last weekend, and secondly, they were switching to a back three.
While United have played such a system numerous times under Solskjaer before, it’s difficult to say that setup has been consistently effective for them, with results ranging from 2-0 wins over Manchester City and Chelsea, to 3-1 and 3-2 defeats to the Blues and RB Leipzig.
But it allowed United to address a couple of key issues from the Liverpool defeat – their defensive frailty and a lack of pressing from the frontline.
After all, precious few of United’s pressures against Liverpool came in the opposing half. Edinson Cavani’s presence alongside Cristiano Ronaldo at least alleviated that to a certain degree, and it might have paid off early on when the Uruguayan managed to get a tackle in on the dawdling Japhet Tanganga, only for Spurs to be let off the hook by a kind ricochet.
Nevertheless, United’s start provided indications of how the opening 45 minutes was going to play out for them, with wing-backs Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka pushing high to good effect and the midfield trio taking it in turns to support Cavani and Ronaldo.
There was a sense that Solskjaer’s decision to go with a back three was down to a lack of trust in his team off the ball, which would have been fair on the evidence of last week, but generally the switch worked well for United as Spurs struggled to impose themselves in the first half.
While they managed seven shots and had a goal disallowed for offside, none of those efforts were on target, with Harry Maguire, Victor Lindelof and Raphael Varane – absent last week – working well in tandem.
That extra protection at the back allowed for the United midfield to be more aggressive as well, both on and off the ball. Between them, Scott McTominay and Fred combined for seven tackle attempts in the first half, while both routinely helped on the attack – the Scotland international making the run and pass for Ronaldo’s own disallowed strike, as an example.
Of course, having a finisher of the standard of Ronaldo in attack is always a bonus and his wonderful volley proved that point perfectly, as he lashed into the far corner from a tight angle as he latched on to Bruno Fernandes’ lobbed pass in the 39th minute.
That goal meant Nuno’s men had to become a greater threat after the break, and to their credit, Spurs’ possession had increased to 59.6 per cent for the second half up to the 70th minute, but United’s back three continued to provide a solid foundation – in the same time period, the hosts had just one shot.
The standing of the match was undoubtedly playing even further into United’s hands – if there’s any feature of their play that has been consistently good under Solskjaer, it’s their counter-attacking, and they finished Spurs off just past the hour in a not too dissimilar manner.
Fernandes was the one to rob Oliver Skipp just inside the United half before darting forward and feeding Ronaldo. His clever flick opened up space and the Portugal talisman sliced open the Spurs defence for Cavani expertly make it 2-0.
The average age of United’s starting XI (28 years, 325 days) was the oldest Solskjaer has named in the Premier League, and here were his two most experienced players doing the business when he needed them most.
Solskjaer got the players, system and substitutes – spoiler alert – right, with Marcus Rashford wrapping things up on the break towards the end shortly after his introduction.
Of course, it’s worth saying that Spurs were always likely to be a potentially kind opponent for a United side desperate for a response. Prior to the weekend, Nuno’s side had the second fewest shots (94) and joint-third poorest xG record (9.2) in the Premier League this season.
In the end, everything played into United’s hands and Solskjaer got the response he needed – but with a trip to Atalanta and a Manchester derby coming up, the pressure is by no means off.
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