Solskjaer happy with Utd's comeback win at Spurs

How fitful yet fearless Fred came to embody this Manchester United

United battled their way through more adversity to secure a comeback win at Tottenham with their ever-willing Brazilian midfielder once again key

Vithushan Ehantharajah
Sports Feature Writer
Monday 12 April 2021 09:17

It is fair to say there is a world of difference between Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer beyond how they treat (or threaten) their kids. On management alone, they are very much on opposite ends of the spectrum.

One puts stock in trophies as a measure of a coach's worth. While he wouldn't say no to more, the other thinks the glow from silverware can distract from shortcomings. One prides himself on elite tactical detail honed through experience. The other leans on a looser, more reactive framework that runs on professional emotion.

It was this quality that fuelled Manchester United's 3-1 victory over Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday afternoon. A match in which Mourinho's side took the lead and Solskjaer's stormed back in a rampant second-half performance.

Those last 45 minutes, which Spurs went into with a 1-0 lead, tells the story's defining part. United's three goals the result of 58.4 per cent possession and seven shots on target to Spurs' two. With that, United extended their lead at the top for most points from losing positions this campaign (28) as Spurs moved "up" to joint-second for points spurned when ahead (18).

Victory saw United move to 63 points, 18 ahead of Spurs. But applying a crude adaptation to those points won/lost when leading games paints two abstract pictures. In a perfect world where teams held what they had, Spurs are just five points behind United's haul of 70. A more soulless existence of being down and staying down would have Spurs seven points ahead of United's 35.

What we know of what has played out with these two teams in this Covid-affected Premier League campaign is pretty straightforward. Mourinho has stumbled through being too rigid, while Solskjaer ceding to the game's chaos and working from there has drawn the most out of his squad. Hardy a sustainable method, as this season's Champions League exit and other missteps have proved, but one that, on balance, has served them well.

When at their best under the Norwegian have almost thrived off their in-game flaws. They show no signs of being able to dictate games against accomplished opposition. But when confronted with a problem, often of their own doing, there are few better at finding solutions.

Perhaps the best examples of how "rectifying" has become the new ethos at Old Trafford were two of Sunday's standout performers – Paul Pogba and Fred.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a more at odds pair on the pitch. Both are footballers in the basic sense but both very different, like how strawberries and tomatoes are both fruits. A ball at the feet of Pogba is like a ribbon in the hand of a rhythmic gymnast. To Fred, it can seem like a swarm of bees, and he is the picnic.

Over the last few years, they have both experienced what it is to be unloved. Both were mooted for the exit on attitude and aptitude, respectively, and not unjustly. That they remain as key players is through a drive to overcome their awkward situations.

The weekend was the latest chapter in their redemption arcs. Each showing virtues you would not readily associate with them. Pogba, stationed to the left of an advanced midfield trio, battled as much as he jived: winning the most duels on the deck and in the air, and no one on the pitch made more than his four clearances.

Fred, by contrast, found some refreshing slickness. Far be it to say he "dictated" United's tempo, but it's hard to argue with the bare facts. As Bruno Fernandes roamed and Scott McTominay dropped back into defence to plug gaps, Fred was a constant in the middle. His 96 touches exceeded everyone else's, and while the joke may be that every other one was a tackle chasing after his first touch, it's worth throwing in the fact that 40 of his 63 completed passes came in the Spurs' half. Five came in the move that led to his equaliser.

Two were a "ready" and "set" to Fernandes, before Fred went to receive the ball back and play first time into Marcus Rashford. An immediate lay-off was threaded through to Cavani who saw his shot saved before Fred, continuing his run, converted the rebound.

"He keeps practising," lauded Solsjkaer of the 28-year-old's attacking improvement. "We had a good session yesterday (Saturday), arriving from a little bit deeper. Maybe not striking it from 25 yards with his right foot, but getting in the box, in the areas where you can use your left foot. I'm so pleased for him. He gives us everything every game, Fred, and he's rewarded by a very important goal for us."

Edinson Cavani, Fred, Paul Pogba, Bruno Fernandes complain to referee Chris Kavanagh

United like to think Pogba is their totem: a World Cup winner and gliding iteration of the footballing class and clout they used to wield so freely. But really, they are Fred: awkward yet ever-willing; fitful yet fearless; hard work at times, but always willing to do the work. Like Fred, they can unconvincing, yet always striving to convince.

It is to Solskjaer's credit that he has cultivated an environment where players feel free to express themselves even when games slip out of their control. A contrast to Spurs under Mourinho making a habit of giving in to fear when situations are in their favour. Their second-half display was further proof of that.

So, here's a question: who's the best manager? Just kidding, no need to answer that. It's pretty clear from the medal haul, which does matter, who wins that round. But nor is there any need to answer who is the more effective right now.

With relatively even squads, one team is comfortably second and the other uncomfortably seventh. Not through greater pedigree or better organisation. But through a clearer philosophy that, ultimately, boils down to “allowing” his team to make mistakes. United are far from perfect, but they know falling behind does not mean you cannot get ahead.

It might not be a league-winning formula. But, for now, with Champions League football all but guaranteed, second-place with a buffer of seven points, one foot in the semi-finals of the Europa League and squad harmony high, it's working. In a challenging season, where purpose and drive have been a struggle, that's all that counts.

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