United had endured a period of ‘crisis.’ Lifeless against Liverpool, boring against Benfica and defeated by Huddersfield. They needed a result and they needed a performance. Thankfully, they got one, battling to a 1-0 win with a late Martial winner. It was a much-improved performance compared to a week ago and stopped City pulling away at the top of the table.
Mourinho stuck with the 3-5-2 shape that had played away at Swansea midweek but restored most of the first team that had been rested for the cup game. Bailly, Jones and Smalling made up the back three, flanked by Valencia and Young. Herrera and Matic remained the two in midfield and Mkhitaryan played in the hole behind Rashford and Martial. Spurs played Dier in the back three and replaced the injured Kane by playing Sissoko, Eriksen and Alli in behind Son.
United started brightly, keeping the ball for long periods, moving the ball quickly and pressing from the front with intensity. Within minutes they had their first chance, Lukaku bursting free down the left and drilling a cross low towards an unmarked Rashford. Lloris threw himself off his line and smothered it.
The constant pressing was unnerving Spurs. They couldn’t get control of the game and kept skewing passes to a red shirt or out of play. Lloris, under pressure from Rashford, shanked a clearance to Lukaku about 20 yards out. He tried to slip Rashford in, who was halted by the Spurs defence, before rescuing the ball and wiggling free to find Lukaku just inside the box on the right. Sadly, the Belgian’s shot failed to threaten the Tottenham goal.
United continued to apply the pressure and they gained a free kick from 30 yards for Rashford to take. The teenager hit a shot that dipped, curled and bounced towards goal, forcing Lloris to tip it wide. About twenty minutes in, Tottenham were starting to get a grip on the game, finally able to keep the ball and calm everything down. However, the Devils were able to limit Spurs to shots from 30 yards, none of which troubled De Gea.
Spurs’ biggest chance came when De Gea easily claimed a cross, only to bump into Jones, the ball spurting out of his hands and landing at the feet of Sissoko. The Frenchman seemed to panic with his chance to take the lead, lumping the ball high into the Stretford End.
The game was a battle for both sides throughout, with several instances of players smashing into each other. Herrera, Smalling and Jones all made robust challenges. Aurier and Young collided out on the flank and the referee strangely awarded a dropped ball. Young immediately fouled Sissoko, which caused some disagreements between the players. Alli decided to have a quiet word with Young, whose reply was later shown to be ‘when you win the Prem, let me know.’ The ref came over and calmed everything down before someone actually did something.
The first half closed out with Spurs in complete control of the ball, but only managing one more chance. United failed to clear a corner that ricocheted around the near post, Dier finally managing to hook a shot at goal. Smalling got a toe to it, slowing the ball down for De Gea to gratefully claim it. There was also time for Valencia to clean Alli out, in what probably should have been a booking. Lovely to see.
The second half started at a slower pace than the first and it took time for either team to have a meaningful chance. United then had a flurry of chances. Mkhitaryan, who had another poor performance, hit a weak shot from the edge of the area. Somehow, Lloris fumbled the attempt, the ball dropping towards Rashford, but Ben Davies came across and cleared it away. Immediately afterwards, the Armenian was played in on the left side, where he fizzed in a cross-cum-shot at Lloris. The Frenchman got a leg to it, diverting it away from goal and agonisingly away from Lukaku’s finishing touch.
The crowd were briefly fired up and it felt like the onslaught was about to begin. However, by the hour mark, all of that energy had dissipated, replaced with a nervousness from both teams. Pochettino twisted first, bringing on Llorente and Dembele for Son and Sissoko. Valencia then went close from a half volley on the edge of the area, before Jose made his substitutions. He brought on Lingard for Mkhitaryan and later, Martial on for Rashford. There was a smattering of boos on this change. The United fans clearly disapproving of Jose taking off one of their favourites.
The two teams were fairly deadlocked at this stage, neither side really creating a multitude of chances or besieging the opponent’s defence. However, the 3-5-2 that United had lined up in had looked good all game. It allowed them to keep two in attack at all times and the back five looked very comfortable in defence. With a midfield two of Pogba and Matic, this shape could be very destructive. In today’s incarnation, the middle two were too workmanlike and were rarely assisted by the number ten, who needed to get deeper to assist them when United had deep possession.
It didn’t take long for Martial to have an effect, flicking it back to Matic who sent through Lukaku down the left side. He smashed the ball across goal, Lloris forced to palm it away. Soon after, Alli had the best chance of the game. Eriksen chipped a beautifully weighted through ball onto the foot of the midfielder. He had ghosted in behind Smalling on the six-yard line. Thankfully, he scuffed his shot rather than poking it home. He should have scored.
United went up the other end and hit the post. Lingard worked a yard on the right by the corner flag and curled in a high cross onto the head of Lukaku. The big striker towered above Vertonghen, heading from the penalty spot, but the ball struck the post and span away from goal.
With ten minutes to go, United grabbed the winner. A long ball forward from De Gea was nodded on by Lukaku, over Eric Dier and into the path of an onrushing Martial. The Frenchman scuffed a shot into the ground and over Lloris, opening the scoring and killing the game. Replays revealed that Spurs’ backline wasn’t in a straight line. One mistake, one goal, three points. That was all that separated the two sides.
Tottenham attempted to push United back and throw everything at them, but the goal had killed their spirit. In fact, the final chance of the game fell to Lingard. He broke free on the halfway line from a Herrera clearance, but rather than accelerate away, he appeared to get nervous and hit a poor shot into the stands.
This was by no means a free-flowing attacking performance. Rather a well drilled, hardworking and hard fought victory. However, unlike the Liverpool and Benfica game, this side was trying to win the game above all else. The poor effort and cluelessness of the performance at Huddersfield was replaced with fight and the desire to win. United still really miss Pogba and there are growing doubts that Mkhitaryan is a good enough number ten for a whole season. But in Lukaku, Rashford and Martial the Reds have three players who can get a goal given the chance.
This was a very big win for United. A win and a clean sheet over a fellow title challenger is always a great thing, but to do so after the month United have had is a massive boon. If United can get a few key players back and continue to be this solid, hopefully the free flow attacking play will return. Is this to be a turning point in United’s season? We will see; it’s Benfica next.