The first chant of the night after Manchester United kicked off their crucial match against José Mourinho’s Tottenham Hotspur was ‘Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole.’ It was sung loudly and proudly by an Old Trafford crowd who wanted to leave no doubt in their manager’s mind that they, if no one else, were behind him.
It wasn’t just the fans either. Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s young team started like they, too, were keen to send a message. For forty minutes, they blew Spurs away and it felt, to those in the stands, like all of their beleaguered manager’s promises of fast, free-flowing football, for which this club is famed, were finally coming to fruition.
Mourinho, on his part, is famed for his frugal defences, but the one he has inherited from Mauricio Pochettino simply could not cope with the pace and movement of Daniel James, Mason Greenwood and, in particular, Marcus Rashford, who played with a maturity and poise that belies his still-tender years.
This feels increasingly like a coming of age season for Rashford. It seems like aeons have passed since that breakthrough season when he was the last throw of the dice in an injury-hit Louis van Gaal team. Back then, everything he touched seemed to turn to gold and, after a few years of frustration, during which some fans had doubted he hadn’t been little more than a flash in the pan, he is flourishing under Solskjær. Serge Aurier will certainly be in no hurry to face Rashford again.
There wasn’t as much bite in the air as on Sunday, when United drew with Aston Villa and it felt as if they had brought the Baltic weather back from their defeat in Kazakhstan. But there was far more bite in their midfield with the return of Scott McTominay to partner Fred instead of Andreas Perreira.
Some had underplayed the importance of McTominay’s absence for United’s previous two matches. Perhaps now they will recognise how much he makes this team tick, his aggression, energy and ability to sniff out space integral in allowing more creative players ahead of him to thrive. Unlike Perreira, McTominay does not hide, and there was a rousing rendition of his name when he squared up to Spurs’ goalkeeper, Paulo Gazzaniga, in the second half.
Alongside the Scot, Fred also excelled, scurrying around the pitch like a Tasmanian Devil. There is a real desire among these fans to see the Brazilian do well for, as Solskjær himself pointed out after this match, these are fans who recognise hard work, and few players, week after week, work harder than Fred.
United should have been out of sight by the time Spurs equalised just before halftime, and there was the usual worrying reaction to the setback of conceding a goal. Suddenly all the self-assurance of the first forty minutes was gone, the energy and drive seeping away like air out of a slashed tyre. Passes, hitherto crisp and confident, now went astray, and it all felt depressingly in keeping with the season as a whole.
Yet it would have been an injustice far worse than the draws against Arsenal, Liverpool and the like had United not held on to the lead they restored early in the second half. And, though Spurs improved somewhat, David De Gea, whose performance was statesmanlike in its authority behind a notoriously shaky defence, was never truly tested.
The final action of the match was a crunching tackle from Aaron Wan-Bissaka, cheered like a winning goal, its vibrations felt in seventy-odd thousand legs around the stadium. United had held on to a lead at last and, though it was just one game and cannot undo previous poor results, still it felt significant.
Perhaps it was because of the earlier than normal kick-off time that fans were in less of a rush than usual to get home but, more likely, they realised the importance of this result. Either way, many stayed to show the team, and their manager, their appreciation, and left Old Trafford with their shoulders pushed further back, their chests puffed further out and their heads held that bit higher than before.
Mourinho, too, stayed out on the pitch to congratulate his former players, reserving his warmest embrace for McTominay. But this was not about Mourinho. Nor was it about Pochettino. This was all about Ole Gunnar Solskjær, and the final song, like the first, was dedicated to him.
‘Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole!’ sang the hordes, as the players and their manager walked down the tunnel, back into the bowels of Old Trafford. If they listened closely, they will have heard, through the walls, that chant continuing in the tunnels and on the streets around this stadium. For these fans continue to believe.
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