Lads, it’s Tottenham. Nuno’s Tottenham. But Manchester United deserve credit and so, too, does Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, even if questions remain.
1) The one thing that game needed was a decisive result. A definitive winner and a doomed loser. Water sprayed at one dumpster fire and petrol poured on the other. One crisis averted and another aggravated. Tottenham or Manchester United? Either would suffice but a draw was the anticlimactic grey area most expected and feared after a week of gripping storylines from north London and Old Trafford.
It was difficult to watch the majority of those 90 minutes and not feel as though the poison has already set in at both clubs, with a change in coach the only possible instant antidote. But while Manchester United might labour on under the pretence that this was a meaningful long-term step forward, the toxicity at Tottenham might now be impossible for the hierarchy to ignore. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer continues to survive on the most borrowed of time; Nuno Espirito Santo is well into his overdraft and out of credit. And it is still no clearer which club is in the better position as a result.
2) A home atmosphere that started out supportive and boisterous was transformed within the hour. The removal of Lucas Moura felt like a watershed moment, the point at which the social media bile filtered through into the stands. No manager or player in world football is safe from keyboard warriors but once those paying supporters in the stadium turn, it is a matter of time until something has to give.
Tottenham’s deficit was doubled within ten minutes. Bergwijn had 18 touches, was fouled three times and neither shot nor created a chance in an anonymous 37 minutes. Even at 5-0 down to their most bitter rivals last week, Old Trafford never reacted to a Solskjaer decision like that. Perhaps that underlines how little anyone wants Nuno at Tottenham anymore, including the man himself.
3) The fans roundly booed the decision to replace Lucas, perhaps Tottenham’s most effective forward by then, for Steven Bergwijn. It was greeted with a chorus of “you don’t know what you’re doing,” although those six words could have been dubbed over almost any moment in this game and not felt out of place. Both teams were so nervous, so fearful for the first hour, inhibited by how much they had to lose rather than what they stood to potentially win.
An exceptional exception to that rule came just before half-time with Cristiano Ronaldo’s exquisite goal, but only when the Portuguese played in Edinson Cavani to make it 2-0 did Manchester United look in any way truly comfortable. That is incredibly damning of Spurs, who welcomed a wounded animal to their home, nursed it back to full health and feigned surprise when it eventually mustered up the strength to bite their collective face off. This was a surrender to their own reputation in the most stark terms.
4) Manchester United, to their credit, grew in confidence as Tottenham surrendered theirs. Contrary to the cliche, despite their humbling against Liverpool last week, the performance was actually far more important than any eventual result in north London. A shaky one-goal victory with a Fred shot deflecting in off Eric Dier’s arse and Harry Kane missing ten chances would have been entirely useless. Three points had to be delivered as part of a coherent plan hatched by the manager and enacted by his players. There had to be a clear improvement in that torturous six-day break.
It was not perfect but it was a significant rectification of those many wrongs less than a week prior. All three goals were comprised of excellent individual components, but they were tied together as part of well-organised team moves. Tottenham had a couple of presentable opportunities yet nothing glaring and no shots on target. Manchester United’s first half an hour was about stability, then they gradually became more ruthless in attack and unforgiving in defence from that platform. The challenge now is to build something truly sustainable from there. The jury will remain unconvinced.
5) This was a victory for Solskjaer on two fronts. In the immediate term, his tactical gamble paid ultimate dividends. The switch to a back three felt like one last throw of the dice, a desperate final attempt to resuscitate a corpse Liverpool left twitching at Old Trafford. Manchester United had not used that formation since the 3-2 Champions League defeat to RB Leipzig in which individual mistakes completely undermined them; more defenders does not necessarily correlate with better defending.
Solskjaer spoke before the game of the need to “put a few more experienced players in there, to have that experience and solid foundation”. Victor Lindelof, Raphael Varane and Harry Maguire gave little away and few strikeforces are quite as accomplished or battle-scarred. The Norwegian cannot have named many starting XIs with an average age of 28.3 yet they vindicated his selection and tactics, with the effectiveness of his substitutions an added bonus.
Solskjaer: "Every man to a tee did his job. Many things behind tactics we used. One is solidity. We needed a clean sheet. We got width from wing-backs. If you change + don't get a result you will be scrutinised. The coaches have done a very good job to put that in place." #MUFC
— Laurie Whitwell (@lauriewhitwell) October 30, 2021
6) The other win for Solskjaer was in the response from his players to adversity. He has retained their support, kept their respect and not lost their backing. There are inevitable leaks from obvious sources but the dressing room is generally still in his favour. Loose balls were retrieved, lost causes found and battles won in his name by players who knew another surrendered would have fallen on his head, not theirs. It might only mean so much – and it cannot be emphasised how bad Tottenham were – but that counts for something.
7) The standard of those first 30 minutes was remarkable. When not trying to sustain the @Crap90sFootball Twitter account of the next few years with passages of aimless hoofs into the air, all players were taking three or four touches when one would have sufficed. Everyone seemed so scared to make that decisive mistake that instead of slipping a quick pass between the lines, they controlled the ball, then set themselves, then realised that any chance to progress the play had gone so it was filtered back to the defenders.
One intricate move broke out wide on the left and midway in United’s half as Oliver Skipp, Harry Kane, Heung-min Son, Giovani Lo Celso and Ben Davies knitted some neat interplay together, but possession could not be retained by either side when passing forwards for longer than a couple of seconds. That general sense of anxiety and underlying panic was summed up by Gary Neville’s sharp intake of breath as Emerson Royal ran through a maze of dark alleys situated in the opposition penalty area.
8) Neville helped sum up the quality of those opening exchanges when Fred managed the first shot on target. It was a passable effort, 30 yards out and swerving but ultimately central to Hugo Lloris and predictably unthreatening. “Some strike,” said the Sky Sports co-commentator as the replay rolled. “What a go!” buzzed Martin Tyler.
The cracks in their voices betrayed the absolute futility of having to pretend this was in any way entertaining. The sense of dread that it might have been the closest this game might get to excitement was overwhelming.
9) Alas, within a matter of minutes came the moment. Kane had dropped deep and slipped Son in behind to undermine the hours of half-time analysis Roy Keane and Graeme Souness had prepared in the studio about how the England captain had to stand in the box and wait for the ball to be played to him. By the time most had realised Son was probably offside, Aaron Wan-Bissaka had sprinted back and put in a fantastic recovery block to render the whole move moot.
And then Manchester United struck. Wan-Bissaka and Ronaldo both had shots blocked as Tottenham retreated deeper into their own area, but not deep enough for Davies to prevent Ronaldo’s sublime finish from a wonderful Bruno Fernandes delivery.
The movement and technique from Ronaldo was ludicrous. The assist from Fernandes was delightful. The positioning of Davies less so, and the fact that Fernandes had already tried to dink the ball over the defence and to his compatriot a few seconds prior was maddening. The supposed definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. The definition of being shit was Tottenham in that moment.
10) The best unconverted chance of the game will be lost in a mountain of reaction but that lead really should have belonged to the hosts. When Varane and Maguire contrived to stop Lo Celso progressing into the area, Tottenham had a presentable opportunity from a free-kick. It was hit into the wall but recycled by Skipp and Lucas, who chipped it over to Son. His first touch was lovely but for the second he stretched the outside of his right boot in search of the top corner and found only the stands.
Son and Kane were poor, which barely needs pointing out. If not a change of manager, Tottenham need to alter their attacking dimensions. But conceding the opener in a move so similar to one they should have scored through earlier must sting.
11) Early in the second half, Scott McTominay started to impose his will on a game that was collapsing under the weight of its narrative. He broke through barely functioning midfield lines twice in the first five minutes after the break to set up Ronaldo, the Portuguese emphatically finishing one of those chances before being ruled offside.
McTominay was excellent, switching play cleverly and hunting the ball down without reluctance. He had the highest passing accuracy of any starter, the most dribbles of any Manchester United player and the joint-most tackles on either team. That partnership with Fred has its limitations and the midfield resistance he faced was meagre, but the Scot played well.
12) So, too, did Wan-Bissaka. A clumsy and awkward fit at wing-back, he was nevertheless the biggest threat in the first half and invaluable in defence throughout. A couple of low crosses utilised Cavani’s movement and both he and Fernandes were phenomenal tracking back.
He likely didn’t hear Keane’s pre-match missive that “I don’t even think Palace would take Wan-Bissaka back,” but the defender did well with the added responsibility in possession. It doesn’t feel as though it could be a viable long-term position for him, but then there is not a great deal about Manchester United that engenders belief in their long-term viability.
13) As Manchester United developed a courage in their convictions, they stopped playing within themselves and stuck the knife in. Ronaldo chopped his way past Skipp and played Cavani in behind, before Marcus Rashford accepted fellow substitute Nemanja Matic’s through ball with a delightful finish.
That second goal was a tour de force of movement, skill and technique, a possible hint at a future strike partnership. As little as Ronaldo offers Manchester United off the ball, Cavani puts in the yards of a player ten years younger, with no cost to his attacking output. The 34-year-old is their best forward; he should play whenever available.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer: "I've been here three years now & Tuesday's training performance from Edinson Cavani was probably the best performance anybody has ever put into a training session here." #MUFC
— Ryan Taylor (@RyanTaylorSport) October 30, 2021
14) Skipp was terrible for that goal, surrendering a 50/50 to Fernandes on the halfway line before being spun by Ronaldo. Two supreme players but one would expect more resistance to their brilliance. His substitution for Tanguy Ndombele immediately after could not have been more pointed if it was an on-pitch tactical instruction given out by an annoyed Jordan Henderson.
It might be a little harsh but this does feel an awful lot like the second coming of Harry Winks: an academy graduate midfielder, gifted in the pass but diminutive, often ineffective defensively and with little to offer in attack, built up to the heavens in expectation before crashing down amid the rest of the rubble in reality. His performances earlier this season were lauded but one wonders how much of that was down to a desperation for anything positive. Look hard enough into the tunnel and you can fool yourself into seeing the light. Skipp might fulfil his potential one day – as may Winks – but certainly not in this iteration of this team.
15) Dier and Cristian Romero both had one standout moment each. The former did well to cut out a Luke Shaw cross destined for Ronaldo at the back post, while the latter held his line impeccably to play the Portuguese offside in the second. Aside from that, their supposedly budding partnership was left in tatters.
Plenty of that is down to a lack of protection afforded by those in front and to either side but Dier and Romero really struggled. Their positioning and awareness for the Cavani goal was atrocious and Rashford barely had to work to find space for the third.
Dier and Romero have now conceded nine goals in five Premier League starts together. It might be time to reinstate Davinson Sanchez. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
16) Lads, it’s Tottenham. Nuno’s “trying” Tottenham. It was a very impressive away win against a direct rival but flogging a dead horse puts a natural bar on positivity. They won this fixture 3-1 in April and only so many questions could be answered over 90 minutes in north London. Repeat this against Manchester City, Watford, Chelsea, Arsenal and Crystal Palace in the coming weeks and lingering thoughts of false dawns will dissipate. Cristiano Ronaldo should not be christened as this era’s Mark Robins just yet.