This first big-six game back was a “training game”, alright, but only in the sense that it felt like an attack v defence drill. That was the pattern of this entire 1-1 draw between Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur, and was largely driven and decided by two creative midfielders: Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba.
In that, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer did admittedly have what Jose Mourinho didn’t, but it also meant United had all of the ball, and pretty much all of the play. Fernandes ran the game and scored its key final goal through a penalty, but it was Pogba’s brilliance off the bench that earned it. All too fitting.
Through that, the French midfielder reminded United just how much they’ve actually missed him, and what he brings, while offering a more exciting image for the future. This is what might be possible.
The image for Spurs meanwhile continues to look a bit drab, even with Harry Kane and Son Heung-Min back, although it was clear that neither - but particularly the English forward - were at their sharpest.
You could say similar about man-of-the-moment Marcus Rashford, who couldn’t quite make the best of his own rare moments on his return from a back injury.
What you couldn’t say was that Spurs deserved more. They got away with this, even if it was right a late penalty for a Fernandes fall was overturned.
The recent pattern of this game hasn’t quite been a stand-off, but it has generally involved one side sitting off and waiting to punch holes in the other. United have had more success with that of late, so it was striking they were so much more imposing early on. That’s the effect of a player like Fernandes.
The Portuguese does impose a more attacking style on United, and it meant they were imposing their game on Spurs. That, however, tends to perfectly suit Mourinho.
Spurs did mostly stand up strong, beyond that chance that Fernandes curled in for Rashford.
From that, under pressure and a standing start in a very general sense, Mourinho’s side suddenly exploded. Or rather, Steven Bergwijn just accelerated.
It genuinely was as if they’d forgotten to defend, or keep the ball out, in a very real sense. United were just caught out by Bergwijn’s basic directness. Harry Maguire was turned far too easily, David de Gea beaten far too easily.
It was hard to know who was more to blame, but the goalkeeper really could have done much better with a shot that was admittedly fierce but still straight at him. United were for the next 10 minutes as fragile as De Gea’s hands, and Spurs sensed opportunity. With their key attackers not looking fully fit, though, they couldn’t take it.
It wasn’t long until the basic pattern returned, which was perhaps inevitable since it was United with all the actual ball players on, before they loaded up even more in Pogba. While they had a proper playmaker like Fernandes picking so many passes, Spurs in the same position had a runner like Erik Lamela. That isn’t to necessarily criticise Mourinho or his side, but it did ensure that a lot of this match was going to be them ceding the initiative, sitting off, and having to defend.
So it was.
Such approaches always involve a greater playing of the percentages, and it would be instructive to see the xG figures on two big chances Anthony Martial had in the second half. One saw him take Fernandes’ typically fine pass a little too sluggishly, to let Eric Dier superbly intercept. The other saw an acrobatically defiant save from Hugo Lloris.
United might lament that those chances didn’t fall to Rashford given his success rate in politics this week, but he still isn’t at his physically sharpest. The forward might have done better with that first opportunity, that Fernandes so supremely created, and didn’t get much on a header that seemed to be setting up for him.
It instead fell to another returning player to offer the ingenuity required. Pogba came on, and set off. His quick feet on the right invited Dier into a lunge, and the midfielder took the chance to go down.
It was soft, but probably right. There was nothing soft about Fernandes’ penalty, as he drilled it into the corner.
It wasn’t quite a direct combination between the two midfielders, but it was fitting they were two players directly responsible for the goal, since they were the difference between the teams.
They were why United deserved more, and certainly deserve their point. Spurs meanwhile aren’t looking deserving of a Champions League place that they are drifting away from. And that’s closer to the middle of the table, without a midfield like United’s.
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