A frustrating month domestically for Jose Mourinho and Manchester United ended with the Portuguese manager regaining his Midas touch. The decision to throw on Anthony Martial in place of the stand-out Marcus Rashford against Tottenham Hotspur was greeted by boos from some in the Old Trafford crowd but the Frenchman delivered an 81st-minute winner which could prove critical in United’s season.
The last few weeks have been filled with recrimination around the west side of Manchester. Mourinho’s choice to play a cautious game against Liverpool a fortnight ago was met with widespread criticism, and there was no shortage of ire over United’s surprising loss to Huddersfield Town a week later.
And it looked set to be a similar tale at Old Trafford as Spurs offered the more stirring moments in a game which United really had to win to keep up the last vestiges of any pressure on neighbours Manchester City. Throw in a pair of gilt-edged misses by Romelu Lukaku and all was not looking well.
The one bright spark had been Rashford, with the 19-year-old providing the moments which looked most likely to spur United into action. But when he was hauled off with 20 minutes to go in favour of Martial it looked set to be a decision which Mourinho would be asked to defend later.
But the Frenchman came up trumps, turning the ball beyond Hugo Lloris from Lukaku’s assist on a United counter just as Spurs were looking to up the ante and go for all three points. It was perhaps not that big a surprise when the goal came, with Lukaku having got into his best two positions of the entire game following the addition of Martial, the second of which saw him head against the post.
Mourinho had been painted as the miser after killing Liverpool’s attacking game at Anfield, but here he should be recognised as the master. A Spurs side which hadn’t lost in the league since their first game at Wembley against Chelsea back in August were expected to give them a real run for their money and they did. But United won in the most Mourinho way possible.
It was not a game about which United fans will reminisce forever, but it could prove to be a crucial victory in the course of their season. Next week they head to Stamford Bridge to face Antonio Conte’s unstable champions knowing that they could deliver a crucial counter-blow in the title fight.
Such are the fine margins of Mourinho’s style of football that Chelsea will have been the last thing on United’s minds until Martial stepped up. But now the fans can at least entertain a modicum of hope again, and for that they should thank their manager for staying cool and coming up with the crucial change that has put them back on track.