No win will ever be unwelcome for Manchester United, particularly not against a team managed by its former boss Jose Mourinho, but this was a victory that complicated the picture at Old Trafford. There had been rumors earlier in the week that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could be ousted for Mauricio Pochettino if performances against Tottenham tonight and Manchester City on Saturday were poor, but this was among United’s best three displays of the season and the three points at least keep it just about in the race for Champions League qualification.
The gap from United in sixth to Chelsea in fourth is eight points; it would take a significant sustained improvement to close that gap but there were signs here of a brighter future. Or perhaps Spurs really are as shapeless and lethargic as they seemed in the gloomy dog-days of the Pochettino era. That’s the problem with judging anything involving sides in the middle of the Premier League at the moment: there are a lot of less wealthy sides playing well and a lot of wealthy sides struggling for consistency.
United was sharp and committed in a way it simply hasn’t been for much of the season.
Perhaps the return of Scott McTominay after injury helped, or perhaps playing against their former manager puts an extra zip in the players’ steps. Marcus Rashford, in particular, was unrecognizable from the weary figure who used to trudge around Old Trafford in Mourinho’s day. He didn’t just score after six minutes, the speed of his shot seeming to take Paulo Gazzaniga by surprise as it flashed in at his near post, but also in the first half arced a free-kick just wide and whipped in a ferocious 30-yard drive that Gazzaniga tipped onto the bar.
Rashford made it nine goals in his last nine starts for United with a penalty early in the second half after he had been tripped by Moussa Sissoko, who was goaded into a challenge he had no need to make and trod on the forward’s toe. The return to the left from the center has brought a significant upturn in form. For the 22 year old.
And yet United has become a side that squanders good positions. It is no longer the winning machine of old. A failure to finish off sides it is dominating keeps afflicting United and it must have been fearing the same again when Spurs leveled four minutes before half time. Jan Vertonghen, operating at left back, sent in a glorious cross and, although it was half cleared, as the ball dropped Dele Alli controlled the spinning ball across his chest, sending Fred and Ashley Young the wrong way, and poked a finish past David De Gea.
Whether he was returning to form after all his injury problems anyway is open to debate, but Alli has now scored four in four under Mourinho.
But that couldn’t disguise how poor Spurs had been. Their passing had been wayward and it was being overrun in midfield, exposing a defense by which Mourinho is known to be deeply concerned. It has now conceded two goals in each of Mourinho’s four games since replacing Mauricio Pochettino. Mourinho may be portraying himself as more mellow these days, but he isn’t relaxed enough not to be deeply concerned by that sort of generosity.
He would be troubled too by how flat his side seemed. What few attacking opportunities stemmed from moments of individual flair rather than anything more cohesive, while there were a remarkable number of basic errors, something that has become an increasing problem in recent months. Blaming Mourinho at this stage makes little sense, but this was a performance that perhaps put into context those three slightly skittish win with which he began his reign. Other than the form of Alli, which may have been on the up anyway it’s been hard to discern any real improvement.
Spurs now trails United by a point and, while European qualification would probably be regarded as a bonus for either side in seasons that have become about more about laying the foundations for the future than immediate achievement, that has a certain symbolic relevance.
What it means in the long term for United is harder to say. Solskjaer, presumably, will now hold on unless the Manchester derby brings humiliation. He described the reports he was near an exit as “blatant lies” but if the board is having doubts, can it afford to possibly miss out on Pochettino because of a win over a mid-table side? This was much better from United, but can Solskjaer’s team maintain it?