Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur went into this Premier League season as possible title contenders. Going into their clash on Sunday, only Spurs remained remain remotely in the running, but they’re a long way back, after suffering five losses in their first 20 games. United stumbled out of the gates with just three wins from their first seven and things soon devolved into total dysfunction as Jose Mourinho feuded with his own players.
Both teams have set things right, Spurs by winning six of their last seven going into Sunday’s game – which the Red Devils claimed in a very flattered 1-0 win – and United by firing Mourinho and installing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as his unlikely interim replacement to see out the season. Since Solskjaer has taken over, United had won four straight Premier League matches – all of them convincingly. That’s five now.
Yet with Spurs a longshot and United just hoping to finish in the top four and qualify for the Champions League, Sunday’s contest was a game diminished by the events of the season. And so the story was once again the managers.
The abidingly weird thing about modern soccer is that much of the narrative revolves around men standing on the sidelines, not actually kicking the ball. Take a macro view on it, and the fixation of the managerial storylines feels a little like it would if media coverage of the stock market centered on the stockbrokers, rather than the stocks themselves. But then we live in the age of the superstar manager.
Because this game kind of turned into an informal audition for the permanent United job. Solskjaer, a long-time forward for the club, has gotten off to a rousing start – becoming the club’s first manager to win his first six games in charge. But four of those victories came over Cardiff City, Huddersfield Town, Bournemouth and Newcastle United, not exactly the league’s heavyweights. And Solskjaer perhaps lacks the pedigree to manage at this level. His only other jobs were two spells at Molde, in his native Norway, and a disastrous period with Cardiff back in 2014.
It might be that his success is mostly down to the relief and rejuvenation his talented players have felt after getting out from under the oppressive Mourinho. Solskjaer has unleashed the likes of Paul Pogba, who had wilted this season, by actually allowing them to do the things they’re good at – rather than refusing to let them play their natural game, out of apparent stubbornness.
Or perhaps a jovial, low-maintenance manager was just what United needed, and will continue to thrive under going forward.
The favorite, however, is the man on the other bench at Wembley Stadium on Sunday, on what turned out to be losing side. Mauricio Pochettino, once a hard-nosed Argentina defender, has finally turned Spurs into what their potential always suggested they could be: consistent title contenders. He’s been rumored to be United’s manager-in-waiting since Mourinho’s firing, and several months before that as well. There’s a sense that he’s gotten all that he can out of this Spurs team, with the key players all in their primes yet no closer to actually winning a title – especially after the club failed to land a single of its transfer targets over the summer.
There are other candidates, like Atletico Madrid’s Diego Simeone and Zinedine Zidane, who won three straight Champions Leagues with Real Madrid and then quit. Even England’s fairly green manager Gareth Southgate has been mentioned, although he might be the longest of shots.
But if Solskjaer sustains this newfound dominance for the remainder of the season, and United makes a deep run into the Champions League – requiring a round of 16 win over mighty Paris Saint-Germain, mind you – he seems like the low-risk appointment in case Pochettino decides to stay in North London.
And that was borne out by Sunday’s score, with United’s 1-0 win lifting it even on points with fifth-place Arsenal and now just six points behind Chelsea for that coveted final Champions League berth. United probably edged the first half, but then Spurs dominated the second, doing everything but score a goal or two.
And so Marcus Rashford’s 44th-minute goal stood up. Kieran Trippier committed a bad turnover for Spurs in midfield, launching a United counter-attack when Pogba dropped a perfect pass into Rashford’s path. His finish was precise, squeezing past Hugo Lloris’s hand and in off the far post:
But if you want to draw broad conclusions from this game, on which team deserved the points or which manager should be in charge of United next season, you’d be cautious not to forget about David de Gea’s stupendous night in goal for the away team, finishing with 11 saves and almost singlehandedly keeping Spurs off the scoreboard.
After a Harry Kane goal was rightly denied for offside, he was rebuffed by de Gea time and again on clean looks. The Spaniard also frustrated Dele Alli on a handful of occasions, parrying every which way as the Spurs attackers failed to find a viable route into United’s goal.
The difference, in the end, was that one team had de Gea in goal and the other didn’t. And that ultimately had little to do with Solskjaer. Or Pochettino.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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