With victory in Wembley, Ole Gunnar Solskjær has passed his first significant test as Manchester United manager and in the process showed that there is going to be a lot more to his approach than just ‘attack, attack, attack’.
Jose Mourinho will perhaps wonder if his tenure at Old Trafford was not subject to the influence of some malevolent hex.
When his United team had played Spurs in August of last year the game developed a pattern similar to that of yesterday’s encounter.
Like Solskjær, Mourinho had deployed an attacking United side, with Ander Herrara slotting in at right back and new signing Fred partnering Pogba and Matic in midfield. Lingard played wide for the most part but occasionally veered into the centre, just as Rashford did for United’s goal yesterday.
And like Solskjær, Mourinho’s United dominated first-half proceedings before losing control to a much-improved Spurs in the second half.
Mourinho might well point to the fact that his United side created 23 goal attempts in that game while Solskjær’s managed only 13. And Mourinho’s United had only coughed up nine goal-scoring attempts to Spurs. Solskjær’s United allowed their opponents a whopping 21 shots on goal.
How then, the Special One might wonder, had his predecessor emerged with a 1-0 victory while his own team had been left smarting from a 3-0 defeat?
A hex is one explanation for it. Another is that Solskjaer got lucky and Mourinho didn’t.
United have undoubtedly improved under the Norwegian’s influence with Pogba and Rashford especially relishing the newfound freedom to be had in an opponent’s half and the relaxing of defensive duties.
His decision to go with Rashford at nine and relegate the expensively sourced Romelu Lukaku to the bench is beginning to look an inspired piece of tinkering too. A spell on the sidelines could reignite the fire in the Belgian which had extinguished under the airless gloom of the Mourinho era.
Many have been at pains to declare Solskjær the antithesis of Jose Mourinho, one the very definition of optimism and the other negativity personified.
But as the second half developed at Wembley yesterday and Spurs began to find their rhythm, United resorted to the sort of containing tactics that had characterised much of Mourinho’s reign and which had been so reviled by the fans.
Attacking, high press football was fine when it was yielding results, as in the first half, but as United began to come under pressure the Norwegian was more than willing to adopt a more pragmatic approach.
United retreated deeper and deeper into their own half and Rashford became an impromptu wing back for the remainder of the game.
Diogo Dalot and Scott McTominay were sprung from the bench in the final moments as Solskjaer effectively parked the bus at Wembley.
None of which is to suggest that Solskjaer abandoned his principles, but rather perhaps that his principles have been misappropriated and oversimplified.
All the talk concerning Solskjaer since his arrival as manager has been about “putting smiles back on faces” as if he is the Patch Adams of football managers.
Suggesting that the sum total of his tactical philosophy is ‘attack, attack, attack’ is frankly condescending.
Solskjaer doesn’t consider himself an interim boss who’s only function is to massage the egos of the Old Trafford dressing room. He’s a serious professional with career advancement on his mind and Sunday’s performance showed that he is flexible in his approach and reactive to swings in momentum during a game.
But the Norwegian is running into the very same problems as his predecessor.
Were it not for an inspired performance from David De Gea and untypical wastefulness in front of goal from Harry Kane and Dele Alli, United could well have been beaten at Wembley.
Spurs repeatedly tore through United’s defence and on another day at least one of their 21 shots on goal would have gone in.
Though less likely than Mourinho to moan about it and demand millions of pounds in the transfer market, Solskjaer will know that his defence is simply not good enough to sustain this incredible run of results.
Phil Jones is not a centre back to be relied upon. Victor Lindelof was already showing improvement in the waning days of the Mourinho era but still looks like a centre back that needs a more experienced partner to guide him. Ashley Young is at an age where he is finding it hard to perfect both sides of the modern right back position and was regularly caught out of position on Sunday.
There is also the Nemanja Matic conundrum. The Serbian increasingly looks a spent force by the 60th or 70th minute of matches. As his industry diminished in the final quarter of the game, huge gaps emerged in the United defence. It has been an issue for most of the season and Solskjaer has yet to show any appetite to fix it.
For now though, the new era at Manchester United continues in earnest. It is a record-setting six victories in a row for a new manager and even more implausibly, three clean sheets in a row.
His players are running on the fumes of a regime change that will eventually run out, taking the smiles on the faces with them.
When the giddiness is gone, that’s when we will see what Solskjaer can truly offer.
Mourinho only breached fifteen premier league points in 10 games, Solskjaer has achieved the feat in exactly half the time.