This was a surprise. A very enjoyable, satisfying one for the assembled masses at Old Trafford after Monday’s limp FA Cup exit to Arsenal, but a surprise nonetheless. Few expected Manchester United to play with tempo, and offer slick, incisive passing; from the look of a bewildered Tottenham Hotspur, neither did they. But a ruthless first half display with goals from Marouane Fellaini, Michael Carrick and Wayne Rooney offered a welcome tonic to this season’s many ponderous performances. With United entering a definitive period in their sole quest to earn a top four finish, Louis van Gaal could scarcely have timed such a mini-revival any better.
After last week’s disappointing defeat, and several weeks of unconvincing football that had made for far-from easy viewing, confidence in United’s ability to seal a Champions League spot for next season was wavering, especially given upcoming games at Anfield, Stamford Bridge and the small matter of a Manchester derby still to come. As such, the side that raced to a three goal lead in the opening forty minutes here was a welcome sight; hard working, disciplined and, most comfortingly, dangerous. Spurs’ only shot on target took 89 minutes to arrive, Harry Kane taking advantage of sloppy play from substitute Rafael
on the left side to fire towards David de Gea’s near post. The tempo dropped noticeably after the break, with the result all but sealed, but United’s dominance was clear.
Rarely have the home side put a team to the sword quite as ruthlessly as this under Van Gaal’s stewardship. Nine minutes in, Daley Blind, pushed to left back in the absence of Luke Shaw and Marcos Rojo, neatly found the returning Carrick inside the Spurs half, who spotted Fellaini lurking around the penalty area with intent. The Englishman’s pass practically negated the presence of the visiting defence, and the Belgian’s finish, a powerful low strike across Hugo Lloris was as unexpected as it was welcome. United never looked back; Carrick doubled their lead ten minutes later with a pinpoint header after Fellaini’s presence from a corner had again flustered the visitors, and after a poor pass from Nabil Bentaleb, Rooney slipped through the Spurs defence as if they were ghosts before slotting the ball under a beleaguered Lloris.
Even now, long after full time, it’s still something of a mystery as to how United pulled off such a performance. Admittedly, Spurs were poor; the home side’s form should have given them plenty of encouragement but they returned to Old Trafford looking every inch the side that couldn’t buy a win in this fixture for love nor money a few years ago. The pressure should have been on the home side, with Spurs unbeaten against United in their last five meetings; perhaps overconfidence from the visitors can explain their lethargy. Yet this wasn’t a familiar set-up; Blind was pushed out from his familiar role in midfield, and Juan Mata, starting for the first time since January, was asked to occupy the right flank, but the visitors simply couldn’t deal with the pace and precision of United’s play in the opening half. It was exactly the sort of performance the home side needed, and one that few outside of the club’s staff could have foreseen.
The second period was played at a pedestrian pace, the outcome guaranteed after those opening exertions and Spurs appearing toothless in attack. Ander Herrera almost added a fourth but lashed into the side netting after Blind’s delivery. The fear before kick-off was that Harry Kane would run riot against this disorganised defence, but both Chris Smalling and Phil Jones remained composed and limited the soon-to-be England striker to little more than the occasional sniff at goal. De Gea was seemingly given the afternoon off, a just reward for his many acts of heroism this term.
Presumably, the absence of guaranteed starter Angel Di Maria through suspension and the pressure on securing a top four finish forced Van Gaal’s hand, hence the shift in style, set-up and gameplan. Whatever it was, this was a win and performance that the Dutchman and his players needed badly, with a six point gap now separating these two sides. Better still, it’s suddenly made United’s upcoming fixtures look a little less daunting, and ahead of a trip to Anfield next Sunday, a ground that rarely sees the best of United, that’s certainly welcome.