For Manchester United, the importance of this victory could probably be summed up by the fact they began this match in danger of becoming little more than a speck in the distance when it came to the title race.
The gap is still considerable, at 13 points, and “you’re not special any more” seems to be the soundtrack from Old Trafford’s away end these days but, ultimately, José Mourinho’s team could reflect on a satisfying afternoon, featuring some encouraging news about the injury sustained by Henrikh Mkhitaryan, their match-winner.
Mkhitaryan was taken off on a stretcher after damaging his left ankle trying to elude Danny Rose’s sliding challenge and it would have been rotten luck for the Armenian if it had meant a long period of rehabilitation just as he was finally demonstrating why Mourinho was so keen to bring him to the club in the first place. His 29th-minute goal followed the one he scored against Zorya Luhansk in the Europa League last Thursday and, though Paul Pogba was the outstanding performer in their latest victory, Mkhitaryan had shown again that he was adjusting to Mourinho’s demands and capable of shaping the team’s fortunes. His goal spared United from going three months since the last time they won a league fixture on their own ground and there was considerable relief, an hour or so after the final whistle, when the initial prognosis was merely a one or two-week layoff.
United still have a few issues judging by the jarring boos when Marouane Fellaini, the player the crowd like the least, started warming up in the second half and Victor Wanyama might wake in a cold sweat when he thinks about the headed opportunity, ten minutes after the interval, that could have changed the complexion of the match. Yet it was still an encouraging victory for Mourinho’s team and a difficult afternoon for Spurs was probably summed up by the moment Dele Alli, the impudent young buck, tried to upstage Michael Carrick by slipping the ball through his opponent’s legs. Carrick, the older man by 15 years, was much too wise for that kind of frivolity. The nutmeg jammed, Carrick came away with the ball and United went on the attack again.
Can this team find a way back into the title race? That might be pushing it, but Pogba’s form is certainly a cause for optimism and Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s range of qualities make up for his lack of movement on the frontline. United always look better with Carrick’s elegance in midfield and, defensively, it should not be overlooked Mourinho has been making do without three-quarters of his first-choice back four. A quartet of, right to left, Antonio Valencia, Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo and Matteo Darmian might be thought of as potentially vulnerable but they restricted Spurs to only one clear opportunity. Jones, in particular, deserves to keep his place even when Chris Smalling and Eric Bailly are fully fit again and on the one occasion Valencia switched off, failing to react when Christian Eriksen swung a free-kick into the penalty area, Wanyama’s header was horribly misplaced when he had a golden chance to equalise.
Mauricio Pochettino’s team can certainly play much better although, in fairness to Mourinho, perhaps the credit should go to the home side for operating with a structure that successfully negated the attacking threat of Kyle Walker and Rose, the opposition’s forward-thinking full-backs. It was unusual to see Spurs play with so little width or penetration and, though there were long-range efforts from Eriksen and Heung-Min Son, Harry Kane had a difficult afternoon, not least as it was his mistake that led to the decisive moment.
Spurs had been breaking forward when the ball reached Kane in the centre-circle but when he looked to his right, perhaps expecting one of Walker’s overlapping runs, there was nobody in support. Kane came back the other way but succeeded only in playing the ball to Ander Herrera and suddenly Spurs were in trouble. Herrera’s pass was weighted expertly for Mkhitaryan to run clear and a powerful right-foot shot was still rising as it soared above Hugo Lloris into the roof of the net.
The closest United came from that point was the free-kick that Pogba curled against the crossbar in the 63rd minute. Soon afterwards, Pogba was denied by Lloris’s save but it was not just the midfielder’s attacking threat that caught the eye. Pogba’s athleticism and high-kneed running style makes him a fiendishly difficult opponent and, if anything, he needs some of the players around him to raise their own level of performance. Anthony Martial, once again, looked considerably less effective than in his first season in Manchester.
Mourinho resisted any temptation to bring on Wayne Rooney in the closing stages and chose instead to introduce Marcus Rashford, hoping that his speed might help on the counter-attack. Rashford seems to have misplaced his wow factor and the tactic seldom worked but United reached the final whistle without too many problems and Pochettino had to face questions afterwards about why, having beaten Manchester City in October, his side have subsequently taken only a solitary point against Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and United. The Spurs manager didn’t really have any answers, a little like his team.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010