Solskjær’s reshaped Manchester United prove too good for Tottenham

The one note of concern for Manchester United must be that this intelligent display has only delayed the inevitable. There have been too many false dawns under Ole Gunnar Solskjær and although there was much to admire about his team as they ruthlessly exposed Tottenham’s flaws, it is too soon to say that a corner has been turned.

This victory, sealed by clinical finishes from Cristiano Ronaldo, Edinson Cavani and Marcus Rashford, certainly had something to do with the level of United’s opponents. Spurs look aimless under their uninspiring manager, Nuno Espírito Santo, and their fans fumed after Rashford made it 3-0 late on, angrily calling for the club’s chairman, Daniel Levy, to leave.

However Solskjær deserves credit for inspiring a vast improvement after the shambles against Liverpool. His tactical tweaks worked, there was a first clean sheet since August and fielding Cavani next to Ronaldo was a clever call.

Solskjær had clearly decided that something had to change after a week of intense speculation over his future. Forget about everyone sticking together in times of adversity: the real question was whether Solskjær was capable of fixing his side’s tactical flaws and it was at least encouraging to see him adjust his approach, prioritising power over flair, the switch to 3-4-2-1 giving his team the potential to impose themselves on Spurs.

This, it seemed, was a time for everyone to roll up their sleeves. Raphaël Varane was back to accompany Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelöf in the back three and the changes seemed to have a calming effect on United, who looked harder to play through with Fred and Scott McTominay a disciplined, muscular duo in central midfield during the early stages.

There were few opportunities for Spurs to find out if United were hurting. There were flashes of vulnerability from the visitors, Maguire and Luke Shaw both picking up yellow cards for late tackles, but they looked more balanced in their new shape. Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Luke Shaw were pushing up the flanks, Fred and McTominay were winning their tackles and although there was no room for the pace or trickery of Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Mason Greenwood in attack, United still had ways of hurting an unconvincing Spurs defence.

Cristiano Ronaldo volleys Manchester United into the lead.
Cristiano Ronaldo volleys Manchester United into the lead. Photograph: Charlotte Wilson/Offside/Getty Images

Brave with his selection, Solskjær was rewarded for bringing in Cavani as a partner for Ronaldo. Cavani was bright early on, his movement and hustle inconveniencing Eric Dier and Christian Romero, although he was a little wayward with his finishing at times. After going close with a couple of early efforts, the striker should have done better than send a free header wide midway through the half.

At the other end Spurs, who had brought Giovani Lo Celso in for Tanguy Ndombele, were not offering much. Son Heung-min prodded a volley over from close range and Romero had a goal correctly disallowed for offside from a corner, but United were protecting David de Gea’s goal well. After collapsing against Liverpool, they were determined not to give Harry Kane any space.

Spurs were average, creating little, and United became more dominant as the half wore on. Fred tested Hugo Lloris from long range and it was not a surprise when the opening goal arrived. Bruno Fernandes, stationed in the No 10 position, had time to look up and bend a glorious ball over Ben Davies, who had a perfect view of Ronaldo crashing a stunning an angled volley past Lloris.

There was not much that Spurs could have done to stop Ronaldo from offering the latest demonstration of his ability to define a match with a single moment of genius. There was, however, more that they could do with their overall performance. They needed their midfielders, Oliver Skipp and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, to offer more control in possession, for Kane to stir, and they needed to be far more decisive in the final third, their lack of precision underlined when Lo Celso bungled an opportunity to release Son in the 51st minute.

United had emerged with greater intent after the break, Fernandes again sending Ronaldo through to crash another finish past Lloris. Spurs were relieved to see the flag up for offside.

Soon there were loud, sustained jeers from the Spurs fans, although it was hard to understand why they turned on Nuno for replacing Lucas Moura with Steven Bergwijn before the hour. The decision made sense: Moura, willing but aimless on the right, had done little of note.

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All the same the substitution did not improve Spurs. They continued to huff and puff in the final third and it was not long before they were two down, Skipp punished when Fernandes caught him dithering in possession. The ball went to Ronaldo and his beautiful pass behind Romero released Cavani, who beat Lloris with a lovely dink.

After all the whispers of dressing room discontent, it seems that the players have not given up on Solskjær.


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