With 95 minutes on the clock and Manchester United leading 1-0, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer stood on the edge of his technical area and urged substitute Diogo Dalot to move away from the touchline on the far side to congest space in midfield and restrict Tottenham options through the centre of the pitch.
Seconds later, Mike Dean’s final whistle ensured that Solskjaer passed his first big test as United caretaker manager in emphatic fashion, with that small instruction serving as a microcosm of his day. By barking instructions to Dalot, he showed he would not allow his players to switch off and forget the game plan until the last ball had been kicked.
There were many reasons for United’s win at Wembley — the renewed confidence of those in red was a key one — but this was a game in which Solskjaer showed that he can take on a highly rated opponent and win the tactical battle.
Until now, momentum and the feel-good factor had propelled United to victories against five teams who, with all due respect, they should expect to beat on every occasion. But a visit to Spurs was a different matter, especially because their coach, Mauricio Pochettino, is the man most wanted by the United hierarchy to become Jose Mourinho’s permanent replacement.
It would be naïve to think that will change on the back of this result, but if Solskjaer is to have a genuine chance of landing the job for himself, he has to prove himself against the best, so this result placed a very big tick in that box.
Yes, there will be bigger and tougher challenges to come. Next month’s Champions League round-of-16 clash against Paris Saint-Germain will be a significant marking post, as will Old Trafford encounters with Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea between now and the end of the season.
But after his United team brushed aside Cardiff, Huddersfield, Bournemouth, Newcastle and Reading, Solskjaer had to make a statement versus a big-six rival, and he did that by outfoxing Pochettino with a plan that set out to deny Spurs time and space to attack through the middle.
Jesse Lingard had a key role, delayed to stop Harry Winks receiving the ball from the home team’s defenders and form part of a three-man forward line, with Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, that offered blistering pace and nonstop movement on the counterattack.
The trio had threatened before Rashford’s 44th-minute goal, which saw the England forward race onto a majestic Paul Pogba pass before firing a clinical strike past Spurs goalkeeper Hugo Lloris into the far corner.
Pogba’s ball encapsulated the change in mood and performance at United since Solskjaer replaced the sacked Mourinho last month. It was the pass of a player at the top of his game, who has the confidence to take the risky option rather than play it safe.
Had Mourinho still been in charge, Pogba might not even have started this game — the fixture last season saw him replaced after 63 minutes of a 2-0 defeat — but the French World Cup-winning midfielder admitted afterward that the change of manager has been transformative.
“I am enjoying playing my football now,” Pogba said. “I like to be more attacking, I had to defend too much before, and that is not my best attribute. This is my position. The manager tells me to get into the box and score goals. The best example is Frank Lampard.”
“I was benched, and a football player on the bench; I’m not sure if he can accept that,” Pogba added later. “Now I’m taking pleasure again, I play again, I’m doing what I love, so it’s normal. And we’re winning, so indeed we play with a smile always.”
Solskjaer has not revived Pogba merely with an arm around his shoulder. Rather, by placing Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera alongside in midfield, the former Juventus player has freedom to break forward and cause havoc, as he did in the second half. Indeed, for all of David De Gea’s 11 saves, Pogba’s influence at the other end earned United victory, and he was only denied two goals by saves from his France teammate Lloris.
So while Solskjaer’s tactical plan was the foundation for victory, which moves United to within six points of fourth-placed Chelsea, the 45-year-old’s personality has been just as important in turning the team around. Players were down and less motivated under Mourinho, but De Gea made it clear that the gloom has lifted.
“The manager brought some happiness,” De Gea said. “The players are playing well and the team is very strong now. This is the real Manchester United.” Other players have rediscovered their form under the new manager, with Matic once again impressing in midfield after enduring a dismal past 12 months and Victor Lindelof a mainstay at centre-half.
Tellingly, Solskjaer spoke in his postmatch news conference about his team’s spirit before, knowingly or otherwise, name-checking every one of his starting eleven inside the space of three minutes.
Each of his back four was praised, with De Gea described as the “best in the world” and “now challenging Edwin (van der Sar) and Peter (Schmeichel) for the number one spot” in the pantheon of United’s greatest goalkeepers. Matic and Ander Herrera were “fantastic,” while Solskjaer spoke of the “blistering pace” of Rashford, Martial and Lingard, before talking up Pogba’s qualities.
That is the simple side of the game — making players feel happy and full of belief — but by beating Spurs, Solskjaer showed he can also do the hard part of delivering tactically. If this continues, he is going to become a serious contender for the top job on a permanent basis.