“Be the best version of ourselves,” was the message Ole Gunnar Solskjaer sent to his players before Manchester United’s clash with Tottenham on Sunday afternoon.
It was a response to the inevitable questions about the 6-1 defeat United had suffered at the hands of Spurs back in October — amid the ‘revenge’ narrative Sky Sports were desperately peddling before kick off — but it was also said with the confidence of 22 unbeaten away league games behind him, and with the knowledge that his team are now officially the comeback kings.
Invariably the best version of United comes away from home, often against teams inclined to push forward and make the early running themselves. More often than that, it will include a fightback from a goal down. Nobody wins more points from losing positions.
But even for United’s standards, their second half comeback at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium was special.
It was remarkable for all the right reasons, the flip side to some of the flaky and fortunate away wins that have let United off the hook during this run — which now stands at 23 away league games, dating back 15 months.
If supporters were concerned that a midfield axis of Fred and Scott McTominay would stifle United’s attacking progress in the first half, then they were right. Even though United had appeared to score a legitimately good goal through Edinson Cavani in the first half against Spurs (before VAR took over), they created precious little else.
Paul Pogba had been impressive, albeit in a wide position, and impatient supporters were calling for changes, including shifting the Frenchman to midfield.
Solskjaer, however, often likes to give the incumbent players the chance to turn things around, and he deserves credit for sparking a dramatic improvement in United’s performance after the break.
He suggested the palpable anger and injustice United were feeling after Cavani’s disallowed goal had been the catalyst for such a remarkable turnaround.
“That kick-started us,” Solskjaer said. “[Before the goal] we had played like a team who had played in Europe on a Thursday night.”
Solskjaer may have been right to an extent, but to put the 3-1 victory solely down to an angry team showing their mettle is actually doing a disservice to United on this occasion.
They discovered an attacking formula that has been rarely seen against the ‘big six’ teams this season, on display with the quick passing and moving for Fred’s brilliant equalising goal, and again as Cavani eventually got on the scoresheet with an expert header, latching onto Mason Greenwood’s cross.
United could possibly have scored more, and although the door was always open to Spurs to break at the other end, Solskjaer’s side always looked the more dangerous in the second half. They took the handbrake off and let the wheels roll.
It was relentless pressure, and skilful manipulation of a Tottenham defence clearly vulnerable with the off-form Eric Dier alongside rookie Joe Rodon at its heart. As Solskjaer later joked, when Fred is starting and finishing moves as he did for that equaliser, you know things are really clicking into gear. The Brazilian was brilliant in the second half, a perfect emblem of United’s revival.
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Manchester United fought back superbly to beat Tottenham Hotspur 3-1 on Sunday afternoon.
After a VAR row following United’s disallowed goal in the first half, Son Heung-Min opened the scoring for Spurs. But United came roaring back in the second half to win, with goals from Fred, Edinson Cavani and Mason Grenwood.
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Jose Mourinho has a well established reputation as a defensive manager who thrives on disciplined banks of four and an incisive counter-attack, but on this occasion not even the master of bus-parking could sit on a 1-0 lead.
United’s old problem of struggling to break down such teams — a near constant during Solskjaer’s tenure — was visible no more.
This was the away wins at Manchester City but better; this was deserved, it was domination, it was destructive at times.
Whether or not United can turn this into a regular formula away against teams of Tottenham’s repute remains to be seen.
It would be disappointing for supporters if Solskjaer was proven right, and it simply proved to be a one-off on a day when United felt wronged.
The feeling that prompted United’s attacking verve must be harnessed and remembered. This should be the tactical blueprint to take forward into next season’s title challenge; the document Solskjaer hangs on the wall at Carrington to prove United can mix it with the very best.