United are in another cup final!
I’ll be honest, going into that game I was absolutely certain that we would get battered. Spurs had beaten us so comprehensively at Wembley earlier in the season that I was sure they would do it again. Yes, we had beaten Bournemouth with a largely second eleven in midweek, but the game against West Brom was definitively United’s worst ninety minutes of the season. We were there to be got at.
In the previous game against Spurs, United went 1-0 down within eleven seconds. This time, it only took eleven minutes. Eriksen found space down the right and swung in a cross that Alli poked home. The defence and midfield were everywhere. It was starting again. Here we go. Yet another game against a big side that United just don’t turn up for.
But I was remembering Jose’s United Mark One. The team that played cowardly football in big encounters, the one that went long and played Rashford at wing back. This is Jose’s United Mark Two. The one that beat Chelsea and Liverpool. The one that came back to win away at Palace and Manchester City (ignore the West Brom game for this paragraph). This side is a new beast, it wouldn’t just lie down and give up.
It only took thirteen minutes for Sanchez to get his face on the end of Pogba’s cross. The Chilean seemed to stretch every sinew to arc his body and divert the ball back beyond Vorm. For his part, Pogba brushed off Dembele like he was a child playing in the wrong age group. This was the two superstars of this team linking up to drag them back level. Game on.
From then on, United controlled the rest of the game, albeit without really having the ball. But it wasn’t a defensive performance. United harried and pressed when they needed to and when they won the ball back, attempted to play their way forward rather than thumping it away from goal.
Throughout Ferguson’s era, possession wasn’t deemed more important than everything else, it was a by-product of their attacking onslaught. However, this performance was much more in line with a typical Mourinho side; arrogant, authoritative and solid. Spurs barely threatened for the remainder of the game. Equally, United never truly dropped so deep that they were forced to completely give up on attacking.
The winner came from an unlikely source in Ander Herrera. Lukaku’s poor touch sent the ball bobbling towards Jesse Lingard, who thankfully heard the Spaniard’s shout of ‘leave’ and got out of the way. The Basque drilled the ball past the helpless Vorm and put United in the lead.
Herrera has had a very strange season, in that he has barely played but has starred in both this game and the win away at City. He’s the nearest this current United side has to a Roy Keane like player, although obviously not in the same class (is anyone?).
United then saw the game out holding Spurs at arm’s length. I found Mourinho’s tactics in the second half rather telling, as he acted very differently to how he has seen these games out in the past. Previously, he seemed to favour throwing on Fellaini or McTominay or another destroyer to pack the centre of the field. This time, he chose to put Rashford on for Lingard to give United an out-ball on the break. This almost paid off too, with Rashford breaking the length of the field and into the Spurs penalty area, only to waste his chance.
Like a primitive AI, Mourinho seems to be learning. Rather than giving in to the fan’s demands and playing in a different way, I think he is utilizing the squad in the correct manner. This team can’t see out a leading position by sitting deep and soaking up pressure. It needs to attack and counter and hassle and harry. They look much better when they do that.
So at the start of the game, I was terrified we would be humbled. Now I’m excited about what next season might bring. It may have taken him almost two whole seasons, but Jose seems to have finally happened upon a lineup and shape that suits this side. With another central midfielder and maybe a few more squad players, they could look mighty impressive. Couple that with (hopefully) a slightly more adventurous style of play, maybe it won’t be so hard for United to close City down?
But I can’t get too excited. We’ve been here before. Literally three weeks ago, after the City victory, we all said the same thing. Then the West Brom defeat happened. United cannot regress again. They have five games remaining in this season to hone this style of play before hopefully refining it over the summer ready for next season. The home game to Arsenal is the perfect fixture to show their authority and scare the league for next season.
Or he’ll play Fellaini in midfield and we’ll all burst into tears.