Manchester United’s 2-1 defeat to Huddersfield Town really rocked Jose Mourinho; the Portuguese coach couldn’t understand just why his team had played so poorly and immediately went on the offensive, suggesting the entire team showed a poor attitude on the day.
A mid-week win against Swansea in the Carabao Cup improved the mood somewhat, yet it was the victory over Spurs at Old Trafford on Saturday which totally dispelled the fear of the ‘bad attitude’ becoming a regular occurrence.
In what was a throwback to the close, edgy affairs that matches between the bigger clubs were earlier in the Millennium, United and Spurs played out a match where both seemed to be acutely aware of the other team’s strengths.
Mourinho’s charges though stuck to a game-plan of patience and it paid off with Anthony Martial scoring a late winning goal after a quite wonderful knock-down header from Romelu Lukaku.
Early in the first half, it seemed as though United had been instructed not to give the visitors any opportunity to press them. Whenever the ball fell to Antonio Valencia, Chris Smalling, Eric Bailly, Phil Jones or Ashley Young they immediately looked to fire it forward.
This frustrated the home fans and led to a small minority criticising Lukaku for not being able to bring every single aerial ball under his control. More importantly though, it stopped one of Spurs’ most important qualities being utilised to its full effect.
In Harry Kane’s absence, it was clear that Tottenham’s creative spark was going to come from Christian Eriksen, especially with Dele Alli positioned in almost a centre-forward’s role.
United’s use of a back three helped keep the Dane out of the match for large periods, there was no space for him to work in nor play a clever pass in behind.
Ironically, the one time he managed to find space and play a pass, it was Tottenham’s best opportunity and Alli just poked the ball wide.
With Manchester City playing such scintillating football, United’s victory will go a little unnoticed, especially with the Blues holding a five point advantage over their local rivals at the top of the Premier League. However, Saturday’s victory over Tottenham was borne out of a tactical masterclass.
It was important for Mourinho’s team to put in such a performance so quickly after the Huddersfield debacle. It showed how his team were willing to work to a total team centric performance in order to gain a result, the Huddersfield defeat, whilst disappointing, hadn’t scarred them.
Manchester City’s rough patch will inevitably arrive and it will be interesting to see how they negotiate it, for United they have overcome the first real sign of adversity this season.
The logistics of the fixture against the North London club also made it important for United to win. Defeat to Spurs would have taken the Reds down into third place and they would have been eight points behind Pep Guardiola’s charges.
This would have been all the more concerning when you look at United’s next fixture. Jose Mourinho returns to Stamford Bridge yet again on Sunday afternoon, a ground that the Reds have historically struggled at.
Had United been heading into that clash on the back of a defeat then the pressure would have been sizable and another defeat could have seen City move 12 points clear at the top, once you move into double figures people start to see a lead as insurmountable.
As a result of the victory over Tottenham, United head to Stamford Bridge in the knowledge they can beat one of their title rivals, psychologically this helps the players in future big matches.
For Mourinho it keeps him in the knowledge that his players are still committed to him and listening to game-plans, even if his currently irritation is aimed at supporters.
You can also look back 12 months and find another sign of progress in United’s mentality in the match against Mauricio Pochettino’s side. The visit of Manchester City last season ended in a 2-1 defeat, yet City could have been 4-0 ahead inside the opening 20 minutes.
Mourinho attempted to set up in a similar fashion to Saturday, he wanted United to be compact and avoid being put under pressure by City. Unfortunately the fans were immediately concerned by how United allowed City to have the ball near their own goal without pressure; they immediately coaxed the home players into rushing forward and trying to play with bluster. This wasn’t part of Mourinho’s plan and in the end United looked a muddled mess as City toyed with them.
Fans had similar gripes early on against Spurs, yet United’s players stuck to task and eventually earned the result their coach wanted.
Manchester United now head into an incredibly difficult fixture full of confidence, they have avoided slipping into a negative run of results as they did last term, whilst Jose Mourinho retains the belief of his squad.
Written by Chris Winterburn
Follow Chris on Twitter @cmwinterburn
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