When Jose Mourinho oversaw a 3-1 spanking by Liverpool just four weeks ago, Manchester United were 11 points from the top four and had almost nobody believing in their prospects of securing Champions League football.
But under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer they have narrowed that gap to six, and, thanks to their 1-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley on Sunday, they have also seen off one of the country’s big six clubs in a huge test of their mettle.
Marcus Rashford’s goal just before half-time, together with an absolute goalkeeping clinic by David de Gea in the second stanza, took United to their sixth straight win under Solskjaer and threw them right back into the race for fourth place. They may not have gained points on the Champions League positions this weekend, but they have recorded a statement victory and proven to all that they mean business.
In Jesse Lingard, Anthony Martial and Rashford they again had a front line of great dynamism, frightening Spurs’ defenders on the break. And in Paul Pogba they had an all-round threat in their midfield which is now becoming a norm rather than the exception it appeared to be under Mourinho.
United are a changed side not just in results, but also in the way they appear to the eye. They are so much more expressive, so much more coherent, and so much more credible in all phases of the field.
They still owe a lot to the wonderful De Gea for this result, but they can’t be deemed to be fortunate at gaining another three points.
While Son Heung-Min had their defence back-pedalling early and teed up Harry Winks for a chance from a narrow angle, United had a solid shape about them almost from the start. Keeping their three attackers high up the pitch primed for the counter gave Spurs something extra to think about, while they could also do little to break down United’s structured base.
As such, United got opportunities in large quantities on the break. Lingard, Martial and Rashford squandered the odd chance between them but it always felt like they would get more. And when Kieran Trippier lost possession to Paul Pogba shortly brefore half-time, the Frenchman’s delicious first-time, cross-field ball found Rashford in space and the England front man brilliantly fired low across Hugo Lloris into the far bottom corner.
It was the least they deserved for their clever game plan and the excellent execution of it thereafter, and you had to feel like there just needed to be a repeat dose in the second half for United to go home with the three points.
But Spurs were much better in the second half and from not having had a single shot on target in the opening 45 minutes they peppered United’s goal after the break.
The problem for them was that De Gea was in sensational form. Having already beaten away chances for Harry Kane and Dele Alli among others, the Spaniard also kept out Christian Eriksen before arguably his greatest stop of the lot when reacting superbly to get a foot in the way of Toby Alderweireld’s header from an Eriksen corner.
If the second half showed that in some ways United are not the finished article, it also proved that they have come a long way. No longer are they caving under the barrage, and with Pogba prominent they always carried a threat at the other end too.
This was United back to somewhere near their best, and on the biggest of stages too.