It was denied that this match was a public audition between Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Mauricio Pochettino to become the next Manchester United manager. It is never as simple as that. Especially when someone else steals the show.
In an era of hyperbole David De Gea, nevertheless, produced one of the most remarkable performances ever seen by a goalkeeper. It was not just the sheer number of saves he made – 11, it felt like more – but the aura of utter invincibility he had created by the end.
“This is the real Manchester United,” De Gea declared, after celebrating in front of the United fans, and he symbolised that having been hugged by his team-mates and with substitute Juan Mata then jumping around in front of him, recreating one of his fellow Spaniard’s saves, as they walked towards the tunnel. Mata looked like an exuberant fan and little wonder. Big hugs.
De Gea preserved Solskjaer’s flawless start to his term as United’s manager – caretaker for now – with six wins from six games and five of those in the Premier League as they hauled themselves level on points with fifth-placed Arsenal, six behind fourth placed Chelsea and just seven points behind Spurs. This was a result, and a galvanised performance, that they would never have produced under Jose Mourinho this season and for that alone Solskjaer strengthened his case even further.
For Spurs and Pochettino this was bitterly frustrating and left them nine points behind Liverpool, probably ending their slim hopes of remaining in the title race. Of greater immediate concern will have been the sight of Harry Kane hobbling off in pain at the end with a twisted ankle especially as this was Heung-Min Son’s last game before departing for the Asian Cup.
Moussa Sissoko also picked up an apparent groin injury meaning that Pochettino’s resources could be stretched even further. Will it help convince him that, maybe, he has taken Spurs as far as he can and that the lure of United cannot be resisted should they come calling?
Time will tell and while Solskjaer undoubtedly got his tactics right in the first-half especially the debt to De Gea should not be ignored. It is De Gea’s job but Spurs will be kicking themselves at the number of clear opportunities he kicked away.
De Gea was outstanding and after him were strong performances from Paul Pogba – the dominant midfielder – and goal-scorer Marcus Rashford. Solskjaer lauded his team but, bizarrely, his press conference was cut short by United’s media officer. Some things do not change, unfortunately.
Fortunately his team spoke volumes. They fought, threw their bodies on the line and followed the tactical plan which meant that this was not a lucky result for all of De Gea’s heroics. They earned it and not least with their intent to try and take on Spurs and then fight to protect their lead once they secured it.
There was a clever tactical tweak that led to the goal. Jesse Lingard was played as a kind of ‘false nine’ through the middle and he dropped back to intercept a loose pass by Kieran Trippier. The ball fell to Pogba, positioned on the left rather than in the number 10 role, and he flighted a superb cross-field pass for Rashford to run on to.
It left the striker, who had been pushed out to the right, up against Jan Vertonghen who has not played for a month and did not look fully fit. He struggled to keep up with Rashford who ran on and drove an unerring right-foot shot across Hugo Lloris and inside the far post. It was a classic strike – all about movement, passing, pace and precision.
United used Rashford and Anthony Martial high and wide on each flank to try and exploit the space left by Spurs’ full-backs. It worked. Pochettino, though, adjusted at half-time and moved Son out wide on the left to stretch the play and his side took control in what was developing in an absorbing, enjoyable contest. And how often has that been said of United in recent times? Not many.
Spurs did not have a effort on target in the first-half but peppered the United goal in the second even though the visitors went close when Pogba powered through to collect his charged down shot and attempted to lift the ball over Lloris who tipped it over.
For Spurs the chances racked up: De Gea denied Kane, thrusting out a right leg to turn away his low shot, and then Dele Alli as he dived down to his left to keep out his guided header. He held a Kane header, held a Kane free-kick, while Alli raced clear, running on to Kane’s astute pass, only for De Gea to block once more with his legs.
Alli held his head, knowing he had to do better and that reaction began to infect Spurs who snatched at chances, going for power in an effort to beat De Gea. But perhaps his best save came when Toby Alderweireld met a near post corner by Christian Eriksen and the goalkeeper again got his legs in the way before Alli created space only to be denied once more.
United were savvy, also, but not negative as they ran down the clock and tried to break up Spurs’ momentum. Even so there were more saves, and more misses, before substitute Fernando Llorente teed up Kane. Surely this was Spurs’ moment? Instead De Gea, one last time, blocked with his legs. “No words,” United midfielder Ander Herrera tweeted afterwards about De Gea even though thousands of words will rightly be devoted to his team-mates’ display, this result and what it means for Solksjaer. It was simply world-class and as De Gea himself later said this was Manchester United, in every sense.