De Gea halts Spurs’ back to the future show

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s managerial reign at Manchester United started in an exuberant way for the Norwegian. Five wins in five matches, large number of goals and cheer positivity. An unshackled United team played with a more positive approach after recovering from the psychological bomb that is Jose Mourinho.

Spurs meanwhile were creeping towards the 2nd place in a phantom like fashion. Their usual Christmas steroids had kicked in with Harry Kane and Heung-min Son back performing to their impressive levels. Unexpected blips however have always positioned Spurs away from the title. Their recent loss against Wolves meant that they went back to third just after overtaking City for only one week.

Solskjaer’s first ‘big’ game came on Sunday when his side traveled to Wembley to face Spurs. Multiple questions surfaced before the game about Solskjaer’s tactical nous especially that his counterpart on the other bench is reportedly United’s number one target next season, Mauricio Pochettino.

Spurs’ injury list has been ever-growing since the start of the season, and prior to the game Victor Wanyama, Moussa Dembele, Eric Dier and Lucas Moura were all out. For United, Alexis Sanchez joined Marcos Rojo and Chris Smalling on the sideline. Pochettino opted to continue with the 4–3–1–2 he uses this season, while United played in an unorthodox 4–3–3. Jesse Lingard started centrally, dropping regularly into midfield. Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford flanked the midfielder, with Rashford tending to focus his runs towards the channels and centrally. A front three quite similar to the one Belgium used in their Quarter-final match against Brazil at the 2018 World Cup.

Lingard’s positioning meant that practically United matched Spurs’ diamond midfield, and with Spurs building up with only the center backs, Harry Winks and Moussa Sissoko, it was easier for United to press. The quartet of Paul Pogba, Rashford, Lingard, and Martial pressed Spurs’ quartet excellently, helped by the positioning of Lingard. As a result, Spurs’ trials to progress the ball failed apart from an early chance for Winks which he failed to convert. Consequently, United regained possession of the ball easier and on an offensive transition Lingard came close to open the score. Ashley Young’s cross fell for the midfielder who was on the edge of the six yard box, but his shot went wide.

Secondly, Martial and Rashford positioned themselves behind Kieran Trippier and Ben Davies when United were defending, keeping a distance from Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld to work around the possibility of man-marking. Also, positioning themselves in the channels and at a distance gives them the advantage when countering as both will be accelerating at an angle towards the center backs who are at rest. Pace and trickery on the counter resulted in United’s second major chance when Martial saw Rashford’s diagonal run from the right side, putting the Englishman through but unable to adjust his body, the shot was easy for Hugo Lloris to save.

In terms of ball progression, United played long balls towards the left wing where United had a height advantage as Pogba moved closer to the wing. A poor Trippier clearance let Pogba put Martial through in the 17th minute, but the angle was too narrow for the striker to finish. Here it was Pogba’s positioning near the wing when United played long balls that gave him the opportunity to pounce on Trippier’s poor mistake.

On the defensive side, Luke Shaw tended to position himself wider than usual to be able to react to Trippier faster. Harry Kane dropping deep then playing a cross field to an onrushing Trippier has been a recurring theme this season, and Solskjaer opted for the safer approach in Shaw going wider when Kane dropped. This proved effective as Trippier caused minimal threat in the first half

After twenty minutes of counter attacks from United, Christian Eriksen dropped deeper to help the build up and to maintain control of the game. Despite that, Son and Kane’s runs were met by Phil Jones and Victor Lindelof who has shown positive signs in his performances this season. While, Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matic swept the midfield, limiting Spurs’ chances. Spurs didn’t manage to create any goal-scoring opportunities and just before half time the stars aligned for Manchester United.

Trippier’s pass into Lamela was intercepted by a dropping Lingard. Pogba then played a tremendous ball into the path of Rashford whose initial position between Davies and Vertonghen gave him a head-start to bypass the latter. His shot whistled into the net as two of Solskjaer’s main strategies combined to give United the lead.

At half time Pochettino switched to a 4–2–3–1. Eriksen dropped deeper in midfield to support Winks, Son moved to the left flank, Dele Alli behind Kane, and Erik Lamela who replaced the injured Sissoko during the first half occupied the right channel. Moreover, Ben Davies played deeper to avoid the 4 v 4 situation in the build up phase and to protect Vertonghen from Rashford’s runs.

Now Spurs had a more creative player in midfield and with pockets of space in the channels behind Pogba and Herrera, United faced certain threat. Eriksen played Lamela into that space, then a combination between the Argentine, Alli and Kane, put the striker through on goal. His shot was saved by David de Gea, a first of many yet to come. The trio combined again, leaving Kane in that magic pocket of space behind Pogba. Kane passed it to Trippier instead of shooting, Trippier’s cross found Alli’s header. But again, the keeper managed to save it.

After two huge chances for Spurs, Solskjaer reacted and switched to a 4–2–3–1 matching Spurs’ system. The Spurs’ dominance continued though. A 4–2–3–1 with a creative midfielder, a speedy player on the wing, trio of highly technical players in the center and an overlapping full back was reminiscent of a highly entertaining Spurs during the 2015–2017 period.

Shifting positions between the lines, Spurs’ technical players bamboozled United’s midfield with their slick passing and their impressive movements. In the 66th minute, Lamela nicked the ball off Pogba giving it to Eriksen. It took the Danish midfielder one touch to pass it to Kane who dropped into midfield. The striker saw Alli’s darting run towards the space behind Jones who was attracted by Kane’s movement. Two touches from Kane and Alli was through on goal, yet it felt like Groundhog day as De Gea saved it with his right leg.

Multiple chances followed but the Spanish keeper was determined to maintain his clean sheet. Pochettino’s last card was the introduction of Fernando Llorente. He brought him on instead of Winks and switched to 4–4–2. United’s penalty box was bombarded with long balls and Kane was close to equalize when Llorente headed down a high ball towards him. Kane’s shot didn’t manage to get past De Gea, and the Spanish keeper clinched the win for United with 11 saves. All of them in the second half.

De Gea single-handedly faced an army of thrilling technical players in the second half, saving shot after shot albeit only the Alderweireld save being extra-ordinary. Having said that, all of the saves were consistent proving his world class level positioning, anticipation and footwork.

Spurs’ flashback in the second half impressed Pochettino and in theory deserved a draw or even more, if not for the superhuman goalkeeping of De Gea. Solskjaer on the other hand proved himself with the effective tactics he implemented in the first half, and he was quite content when he stated after the game that United had been working on it all week and thought that it would work.

An early test passed for the Norwegian, but there’s more to prove if he wants to place himself as a front-runner for the United job next summer.