It wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t easy, but an 81st-minute goal from Anthony Martial gave Manchester United a 1-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur. After the draw at Liverpool and last week’s defeat at Huddersfield, it was a much-needed victory; lose here and United could have found themselves eight points behind the leaders Manchester City by the end of the day.
Getting the three points was the most important thing – as, you suspect, it always is for a Jose Mourinho side. Whether this can be said categorically to mark an upturn in United’s form is another matter. What can be said is that Mourinho’s game plan worked here. He successfully stifled Spurs and, although chances were slow in coming, by the time Martial latched onto Romelu Lukaku’s flick, it was probably their sixth clear opportunity of the game. It was their 11th goal in the final 10 minutes of league games this season, which in itself is a telling statistic; this United keep going and wear opponents down.
Spurs, by contrast, had a couple of half-chances from crosses and set-plays and little else, repeatedly frustrated into taking on improbable long-range efforts. That it was a substitute who got the winner – the fourth time Martial has come from the bench to score this season – only emphasized Mourinho’s mastery.
Such matters are inevitably judged through the prism of results. The plan worked here and so Mourinho takes the plaudits. Had Jan Vertonghen not dozed off, though, as David De Gea launched a long ball forward, the manager would inevitably have been criticized, once again, for his negativity. It was more understandable here against an in-form Tottenham team, but for the fourth game in a row (the League Cup tie at Swansea excluded), United were severely lacking in fluency. Waiting for a mistake will not always pay off. “We played well against a very good team,” said Mourinho. “Both trying to win but both knowing that the opponent is strong and with one eye on defeat. But the only team that had opportunities was us.”
The most encouraging aspect, after the limp display at Huddersfield, was the level of focus and desire. “We all feel [the pressure to win] every match,” Mourinho said. “That’s why I was so disappointed at Huddersfield. It looked like in that match we didn’t know the responsibility, the ambition that we didn’t know that every point is important.”
Mourinho initially selected a 3-4-1-2 but the pairing of Marcus Rashford and Romelu Lukaku never really gelled. The decision to start with a front two, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan behind them, may have looked aggressive, and for the opening ten minutes United did shake Spurs, but none of the front three were able to impose themselves on the game in the first half. Once Tottenham had settled, their extra man in midfield allowed them to control the rest of the first half. Both teams, though, seemed anxious. The pressing from both sides was aggressive, but still there were a lot of unforced errors, a lot of misplaced passes and Spurs, without the injured Harry Kane, created little.
The second half was a different matter. United was quicker, more aggressive and more decisive. Having offered almost nothing as an attacking force in the first half, United had looked far more dangerous after the break. “We created more problems for them with more movement,” said Mourinho. “Then Martial came on for more running with the ball.
Lukaku had headed against the post and drawn a full-length save from Lloris, Antonio Valencia had blasted a snap-shot just over and Lloris had looked uneasy on a couple of occasions, fumbling a Mkhitaryan shot and then awkwardly kicking a deflected effort from the Armenian. It’s a measure of how much United improved that by the end the more pressing seemed less their lack of attacking fluency than Tottenham’s failure, yet again, in an away game against another member of the top six: that’s just one win 16 such game sunder Mauricio Pochettino, even if this was their first defeat outside London since February.
Dele Alli did have one glorious second-half chance from Christian Eriksen’s through pass, but there was a general lack of conviction about Spurs. Perhaps that was a result of Kane’s absence, but they seem not entirely to believe in themselves in big away games. The danger now, coming after the League Cup defeat to West Ham in which they squandered a 2-0 lead, is that they lose the momentum they had begun to build up with the draw away to Real Madrid and the demolition of Liverpool. “It’s important to be calm,” said Pochettino. “In football sometimes this sort of mistake happens. It’s not now to blame one person. We conceded a goal and we must fix that and move on because we can’t change that.”
Nor, though, can he change the fact that it’s United who now looks City’s most likely rival for the title.