Massive three points. Manchester United finally won a Premier League after beating Tottenham Hotspur 1-0 at Old Trafford, ending a run of three consecutive league draws.
Jose Mourinho named an unchanged line-up from the team that drew with Everton last week. Despite Eric Bailly’s return to action in Thursday’s Europa League victory, he was forced to watch from the bench as United continued in a 4-3-3 system with Anthony Martial and Henrikh Mkhitaryan starting either side of Zlatan Ibrahimovic in attack.
The tension around Old Trafford as this game got underway was palpable. There was a real sense of just how important this game was in the context of both teams’ seasons. Manchester United had produced a number of excellent performances in recent weeks but today was a more lacklustre display. They struggled to really dominate a good Spurs side and the contest was even throughout. Spurs had a lot of the ball but it was Manchester United that created the best chances.
In such a tight game, it is often individual brilliance that can make the difference. Manchester United had that today. Since Henrikh Mkhitaryan has come into this team, United have looked faster, sharper and altogether more dangerous in offensive areas. What he has brought to this team is the ability to force the play. He moves the ball quickly, often with just one or two touches, moves and interchanges with his teammates, drags defenders out of position and raises the tempo of the whole team. He offers pace and penetration beyond the last man and gives United a different option in the final third.
Last season, Manchester United averaged 55.9% possession and a pass completion rate of 82.3% under Louis van Gaal. This season, Mourinho’s men have had less of the ball (54.3% possession) but have completed more their passes (84.5%). Today they only had 40% of the ball, completing 68% of their passes. Yet today, despite having so little of the ball, United had something that they’ve lacked on so many occasions when they’ve dominated the opponent. With Martial and Mkhitaryan in wide positions, Manchester United can genuinely threaten in behind the opposition back four.
The moment that changed the game came almost inconsequentially. In moments gone by, when Herrera wins that ball in the centre of the pitch, it almost certainly starts a lengthy move of different attacking phases that would see Manchester United pass the ball to death. With Mkhitaryan in the team, Herrera had an immediate option to release the Armenian and his unerring finish put United in front. Possession statistics and pass completion rates mean absolutely nothing if you cannot offer a goal threat as a result.
The second half was very similar to the same period of Manchester United’s last match against Everton. United threatened on the counter-attack, while their opponent dominated the ball and attempted to break United down and find an equaliser. While United did create chances, including a wonderful Paul Pogba free-kick that hit the woodwork, it was all about Tottenham after the break. Unfortunately for Mauricio Pochettino’s men, they were that wasteful in possession of the football that they didn’t really get close to testing David De Gea in the United goal.
Despite dominating the game, dictating the tempo and spending so long in United’s half of the field, they only penetrated the United penalty area on a handful of occasions. Manchester United’s unlikely centre half pairing of Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones defended well, but for a side chasing Champions League football and perhaps even the title, it wasn’t good enough from Spurs.
Their best chances came from their work in wide areas. Danny Rose and Kyle Walker are a pivotal part of the way Tottenham attack and it was their width that offered so many opportunities to cross the ball into the penalty area, but it was the introduction of Moussa Sissoko on the right-hand side that was the real catalyst for Tottenham.
He beat Matteo Darmian time and time again, terrorising the Italian defender. If he didn’t get the cross in, Kyle Walker was in support to supply the delivery, but time and time again United repelled their advances. Ultimately the repetitive and predictable nature of Tottenham’s attacking play was too easy for Manchester United to deal with and, despite a nervy final few minutes, Mourinho’s men were comfortable throughout.
In need of a vital three points, the final five minutes (plus six added on for stoppages) were tense for a Manchester United side that were desperate not to throw away yet another lead. After Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s injury forced him off the field, Eric Bailly’s introduction prompted an almighty reshuffle in the United defensive system.
Bailly played out of position as a holding midfielder alongside Michael Carrick, Ander Herrera’s energy was deployed out wide to track the rampaging Danny Rose and Marcus Rashford was forced back alongside Matteo Darmian in defensive positions to help stem the tide as Walker and Sissoko continued their assault down the right.
While United failed to hold on against Arsenal and Everton, they did manage to see out the victory against Tottenham. The United players deserve credit for their ability to adapt to such a dramatic change of system and personnel, but it only serves to ask more questions about Tottenham, who yet again failed to live up to their billing as a team capable of challenging for Premier League title.