Eighty minutes of scrappy, chippy, cagey soccer had shown few signs, if any, of producing a goal to serve as an actual winner. They droned on and on, a 0-0 draw appearing more and more inevitable, and City standing to benefit. United’s Jose Mourinho would have been lambasted for his bus-parking, and for restricting his team in a title race that had begun to tilt severely toward the blue half of Manchester.
But on 81 minutes, Romelu Lukaku positioned himself under a David De Gea long ball. Anthony Martial ran onto Lukaku’s flick, and bounced a left-footed shot past Hugo Lloris. United announced itself as the City challenger. Mourinho was spared.
Or perhaps Mourinho was vindicated. Perhaps this was the plan all along. It’s how Mourinho has operated throughout his undeniably successful career. He needs moments like Martial’s goal. He takes calculated risks, betting that those moments will come more often than not. His gamble paid off Saturday, even if for so long it appeared to self-inflict damage. Even if for so long the narrative was different.
Both teams started with three center backs – alignments that stifled both their opponents and themselves. Neither was aggressive. Neither was adventurous. Tottenham was comfortable, but with Harry Kane out and Heung-Min Son up front on his own, the visitors couldn’t find a route to goal.
United, on the other hand, was not at all comfortable in possession. Chris Smalling played at the center of the three, and Spurs were quite content to let him have the ball, because United had no clue how to play out of the back through him. Mourinho had likely drilled his team extensively on the defensive side of the 3-4-1-2 system, but the links between defense and midfield, in an attacking sense, were fractured.
Spurs grew into the game after a shaky opening 15 minutes, and had more of the ball. But their sustained spells of possession rarely amounted to anything more than long-range shots. De Gea was rarely called into action, and when he was, he was never truly troubled.
United had its occasional moments on the counter, but other than a 55th-minute flurry of crosses and penalty-box scrambles, and a Lukaku header that struck the base of Hugo Lloris’s post, the Red Devils’ breaks came to nothing.
Until, that is, Martial caught Eric Dier sleeping. Dier had played an outstanding game. He had run stride for stride with Marcus Rashford earlier in the match. He was positionally sound. He won his duels, and cleaned up second balls. But he switch off for a split second. Martial pounced.
That split second is what Jose Mourinho bets on. And it represents the dilemma here. Had Dier stayed alert, or had Lloris parried away Martial’s effort, or had Martial mishit it, Mourinho’s conservative approach would have been the main post-match talking point. The Portuguese manager would have been the subject of swirling criticism. Instead, United is suddenly a title contender again. And Mourinho has a message for those who doubted him:
Never disrespect the boss again. pic.twitter.com/eNATmqqOsp
— José Mourinho-MUFC (@Utd_JM) October 28, 2017
It is tempting to say United can’t win a title by repeatedly playing for draws against its direct competitors. But if repeatedly draws games it deserves to lose, and wins games it deserves to draw, it can stay in the mix.
And forward-looking analysis aside, even if Saturday wasn’t overly impressive, it was a massive step in the right direction. A step in the direction of Manchester City, rather than a step back toward the pack.
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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.