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How Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's tactical tweaks and David De Gea’s Neo impression helped Man Utd beat Tottenham

There were moments in the 2nd half against Tottenham Hotspurs at Wembley when Manchester United fans had that familiar Ravi Shastri feeling, the sensation of a body part being present where it’s anatomically not required to be.

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How Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's tactical tweaks and David De Gea’s Neo impression helped Man Utd beat Tottenham
Manchester United's goalkeeper David de Gea checks with Harry Kane as he holds his leg at the final whistle during the English Premier League football match between Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United at Wembley Stadium in London, on January 13
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There were moments in the 2nd half against Tottenham Hotspurs at Wembley when Manchester United fans had that familiar Ravi Shastri feeling, the sensation of a body part being present where it’s anatomically not required to be.

The shouldn’t have been because David De Gea stood firm, a god in lime-green suit, who looked less like a football player and more like the Chosen One who had taken a hiatus from the Matrix. 

At times, it looked like De Gea saw everything in green code, and he knew exactly what Harry Kane and Co were going to do before they did it.

Kane, who appeared to be injured after a night of utmost futility, will surely see the whites of David De Gea’s eyes when he tosses and turns in bed, wondering how he drew a blank.

Of course, it wasn’t just the David De Gea show that gave Manchester United a rare win against their top six rivals. Soskjaer made tweaks in the team to take on a Tottenham team which are – technically and physically – far better than any of the sides  United have faced under OGS. 

Tactics

All in all, it was a tough win with two very specific acts. Act 1 lasted for sixty or more minutes, with United hitting Tottenham on the break with players defending higher up the pitch. Act 2 saw Tottenham throw everything including the kitchen sink, only to be thwarted by David De Gea.

Playing  4-3-3, Solskjaer chose his preferred front three of Martial, Rashford and Lingard. However, instead of playing Rashford through the middle as a number 9, Lingard started in the middle slot, often dropping back to forage and scavenge and keep Harry Winks in check. In the first half in particular, United had a midfield diamond with LIngard was at the tip, with Rashford and Martial as wide forwards. 

While Martial played in his preferred left wing, Rashford was chosen on the right. It was also a move to take on Vertonghen, the Spurs left-back returning from a layoff who showed during the game he was a tad rusty.

That particular tweak by Solskjaer helped set up the only goal of the game. A loose Trippier ball was intercepted by Lingard who fed Paul Pogba, who found Marcus Rashford with the peach-perfect sniper-level cross-field ball one expected from a man named Paul Scholes back in the day.

From the excitement seen on the bench, it was clear that the move had been practised in the training ground. 

There was a distinct effort to play higher up by the full-backs, one that Ryan Giggs observed during his punditry stint which pushed Spurs back until the team started tiring.

 

 

Match stats

Unsurprisingly, Spurs dominated possession, as they are wont to do at Wembley. They had 61% possession and took 21 shots to Man Utd's 13. They had 11 shots on target to Man Utd's 8, but they just couldn’t put the ball past De Gea.

Pogba – free again

 

According to stats from Opta, no other player in the Premier League has been in involved in more goals in the last five games. Of the 15 goals they’ve scored under Solskjaer, Pogba has been involved in 8.

He was responsible for the only goal of the game and was unlucky to be denied by his World Cup-winning teammate Hugo Lorris.

Reveling in his newfound joi di vivre, Pogba said after the game: “I love playing big matches and against the best players. That’s where we improve and progress. It was a big one for us. Everyone played well.”

Hitting out at Mourinho, he said: “I’m enjoying playing football. It was really difficult with the tactics we used to play. I like to play more attacking. Defending is not my best attribute. The manager told me to get in the box, get goals. My best example is Frank Lampard, he’s the one who makes those runs.”

 

Dave Saves

Solksjaer wouldn’t be walking away with all three points if it wasn’t for David De Gea’s superlative performance, a blistering return to form in a year where he was uncharacteristically poor in the World Cup. 

On Sunday, he was in a league of his own, keeping Kane and Co out throughout the match. Spurs had 20 shots on goal, and David De Gea made a startling 11 saves, the most he has made this season without conceding a goal. He did so with a mix of his standard Jedi-like reflexes, many of which were made with his legs. It was a slightly unorthodox goalkeeping technique, where he almost fell to the ground like a puppet whose strings have been cut. While it might not be as aesthetically pleasing as dives, it was devastatingly effective. 

His vanguard effort left Mauricio Pochettino flustered who said the 2nd half Spurs performance was the best under him, ruing the 11 saves made by David De Gea who he said deserved the man of the match.  

Former United keeper Ben Foster pointed out that while many of the saves might have looked easy, one had to factor in the fact that De Gea had the ‘mad sense to know where to be at the right time’. 

When Solskjaer took over, five games ago, Manchester United were eight points behind Arsenal and now they are level. As things stand, a top 4 finish does look likely and if that happens, it will be hard to argue against Solskjaer getting his dream job full time.

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