Manchester United come to Wembley and gather up the intangibles

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
January 13, 2019
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Tottenham vs Manchester United, Wembley.

Some games bear scrutiny, others are just waypoints on the long road to the end of May. Manchester United’s win over Tottenham on Sunday belongs in the latter category. It was vigorous contest, full of shots and drama, but it wasn’t a game from which any definitive conclusion rose. Spurs were Spurs, just a more wasteful and depleted version, and United continued their theme of playing much as they had before, just better and with the odd dash of good fortune.

There really is no great difference in Solskjaer’s United. There is no great structural change with which to diagnose their form or to explain the sudden energy in their football. In fact, they’re almost exactly as they were under Jose Mourinho: a back-four, a middle three, and a three-pronged forward line. Most importantly on Sunday, they still had David De Gea, contorting his body and protecting the ego of a fragile defence.

It would be reductive to claim De Gea as the sole author of United’s win over Tottenham, but he did become increasingly vital as the game developed. For as long as the visitors actually played at Wembley, he was only sporadically involved. But, as they began to retreat and cede possession, his resistance became the difference between three points and none. It wasn’t the Spaniard at his most spectacular, none of the saves he made would belong in his personal top-ten, but by full-time their regularity had become startling. Kane was denied multiple times, Dele Alli and Toby Alderweireld too.

Therein lay the tone of the contest. By full-time, the impression left was of an unfortunate Tottenham, unlucky just to run into De Gea at his very best. Half-an-hour earlier, it had been a different story. Solskjaer has infused his players with a lightness of spirit which manifests in bright, ambitious play, lots of movement and the right dashes of individualism. Marcus Rashford took his goal extremely well, but was also responsible defensively. Paul Pogba was also impressive and it was his ball to Rashford which carved Spurs apart after Kieran Trippier’s senseless giveway. But Pogba also played with stature. He strutted as as someone of his talent is supposed to do. One reckless moment aside, when he appeared to needlessly rake Dele Alli’s thigh, he was all tight turns and smart movement and, had it not been for an excellent Lloris save, he might well have ended the game before De Gea was needed to save it.

The imbalance of the play made assessing Solskjaer’s impact very difficult. The club’s form attests to his worth and the way United are playing and the goals they’re scoring underline it further. But it is their texture which is different, not their shape. To put it more succinctly: they add up to the sum of their parts. The loudest complaint during Mourinho’s time was that these players, many on fantastic wages and signed for exorbitant fees, couldn’t combine with anything like the desired effect. It was inefficient and frustrating and, worse, the root of that irritation could be traced back to the Portuguese’s brand of man-management and his various psychoses.

Conversely, those same players now seem freer. By no estimation is Solskjaer a closeted tactical genius, but he hasn’t needed to be. He’s been asked to perform a reset, not a revolution. Whether that’s a long-term virtue is a different matter but at the moment, in this period of recovery, it’s not really relevant – and so, in that vein, Sunday’s win served that broad purpose.

It was three points gained and United have now moved level with wilting Arsenal, but – perhaps more importantly – it was more intangibles gathered and another opportunity to polish the shine back into the club crest. That’s Solskjaer’s aim. He’s not at Old Trafford to reinvent the club or renovate it from the inside. He is tasked with winning games and restoring lustre. It’s not even important if those victories along the way don’t pass detailed inspection, because their worth in their warmth and in the sight of the fixture list turning green again.

The greatest impact Solskjaer can have is to make Manchester United feel like Manchester United again. Winning away to Tottenham, a team who humiliated them earlier in the season and had so often been the butt of their jokes in the past, is a very effective way of doing just that. After all, this club’s pre-eminent habit over the past two decades has not always been to play with style, but to win. To be victorious in the small margins, to snatch points away and to take what they don’t necessarily deserve. On Sunday they did just that and, oddly, that proves a useful barometer of their growing health.

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