Jose Mourinho has many different ways to win a football match but there are few as fiendishly simple as the direct route that Manchester United plotted to score a winning goal on an afternoon when they broke Tottenham hearts once again.
It was Anthony Martial, on as a substitute, who ran free with nine minutes left to finish a flick-on from Romelu Lukaku, a brilliantly simple move that won the game. The ball had come from David De Gea’s goal-kick and in Mourinho’s mind this goal will be the decisive moment that will have justified all that went before it.
Without a win in their previous twManchester Unitedo league games, and coming off the defeat to Huddersfield Town, this felt for most of the 90 minutes like a game that Mourinho dare not lose, rather than one he would take a chance to win. Spurs had fewer chances, although there was little in it, but a lot more of the ambition. Their problem was they lacked the killer instinct that United demonstrated with their winning goal.
Deprived of the injured Harry Kane, the away side always looked like they struggled to surprise the United defence that was largely five-men strong with Eric Bailly, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones all playing in central roles. Dele Alli went close with a run to get on the end of Christian Eriksen’s ball over the top of the United defence on 77 minutes, and missing that chance was a turning point in the game.
By then the match had started to open up and two minutes before he flicked on the winner for Martial, Lukaku had struck the Spurs post with a header. Martial had come on for Marcus Rashford who at the time had looked a less deserving candidate to be substituted having provided the cut and thrust for Mourinho’s side. But these are the decisions that can turn games, and while Mauricio Pochettino has injured players missing, so too does Mourinho.
United went within two points of Manchester City with this victory and with Chelsea away next Sunday, they are keeping the league leaders in their sights. As for Mourinho, he will view the substitution and the subsequent victory as complete vindication.
The first half featured a head-to-head between Ashley Young and Dele Alli that went on longer than expected and began to look like it might be part of a concerted effort by United to get under the skin of the younger of these two Englishmen. Alli was kicked later on by Antonio Valencia when the United man might have got out the way and for a while it looked like Alli might react.
It was not as if United offered much else other than stopping Spurs when they could and looking for the early ball over the away team’s high back line that might give Lukaku a run at goal. If anything it was Rashford’s pace and touch that looked much more likely to yield an opening but United rarely got him away. The teenager chasing down a Spurs move with that electric pace of his was one of those rare moments in the first half when the home crowd’s excitement was sparked.
Spurs tried to work their way out of the United roadblock as quickly and effectively as they could but it was heavy going. Mourinho had strewn obstacles in their path and without Kane they were denied the main distraction for opposition defences. Even so, they had by far the most fluent movement and all of the possession. Alli had a header from a corner before the break that struck Dier in front of goal.
Although Spurs were industrious on the ball, they failed to create the chances in the second half to win the game. It was United who got in behind them at the start of the second half through Henrikh Mkhitaryan, whose earlier shot had been spilled by Hugo Lloris. But in the end it was a momentary lapse of concentration that let in Martial on a day when Dier and Toby Alderweireld had been otherwise excellent, and the Frenchman took care of the rest.