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LONDON — There was only a short handshake between the managers at the end of Manchester United’s 3-0 win against Tottenham Hotspur, but by that point, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had already passed the baton to Nuno Espirito Santo as embattled boss of the Premier League‘s crisis club.
Thousands of Tottenham supporters had already left, but many who stayed did so mainly to boo Nuno off the pitch as his opposite number strode across the turf to the section of United fans, who had been singing Solskjaer’s name for most of the second half as their club ended a difficult week with a much-needed victory.
Spurs followers opted for a more toxic repertoire, which ranged from chanting “you don’t know what you’re doing” at Nuno for his first substitution of the game, when Lucas Moura was replaced by Steven Bergwijn with the score 1-0 — to calling for club chairman Daniel Levy to quit.
Solskjaer is hardly out of the woods and his position remains precarious with a tricky Champions League trip to Atalanta and next weekend’s Manchester derby to come, but his team’s display was a response to recent days, which have seen competing narratives emerge from Old Trafford.
On the one hand, there has been a feeling that United’s players and fanbase are losing faith in their under-fire boss, while Solskjaer himself countered that the group were working well on the training ground to right the ship knocked so badly off course by last weekend’s 5-0 humiliation at the hands of Liverpool.
Given the way this game played out, with United ending a four-game winless run in the Premier League and turning in their most complete display of the season, the 48-year-old was not about to pass up a chance to question some of the coverage, praising “brilliant” fans and calling out those who wanted to, in his words, “portray a different story.”
This performance provided vindication for Solskjaer’s belief that his squad remains sufficiently behind him and his players executed a game plan, which saw just two changes to the side that started against Liverpool, but featured a three-man defence, in which Raphael Varane made a significant difference on his return from a groin injury.
Solskjaer has use three at the back on occasions previously, but whether this is a blueprint for the future or an emergency measure designed to galvanise a beleaguered team remains to be seen. One conclusion that is difficult to escape, though, is that the success — or otherwise — of re-signing Ronaldo will be the main factor that determines the manager’s immediate.
The 36-year-old’s deployment as a lone centre-forward has largely disrupted United’s attacking rhythm, even accounting for his marvellous individual quality, but here he was paired up front with Edinson Cavani, whose presence gave United more dynamism with and without the ball.
The forward line has a combined age of 70, but Ronaldo and Cavani have scored more than 1200 career goals between them and the fact that each added to their tallies at Tottenham encapsulated their team’s display and settled the game as a contest with a third of the match to play. It was, Solskjaer said, something that had been hinted at during the week.
“Tuesday morning’s training session by Edinson Cavani is probably the best I’ve seen by an individual since I’ve come here,” Solskjaer said. “He led the line, he went as a good example for everyone, how to go about changing the mood and the two of them were told early on they were going to play up front as a two. They’ve been like two peas in a pod, really close, and it worked.”
After Cristian Romero had had a goal disallowed for offside and Son Heung-Min shot over from close range, United went ahead six minutes before half-time when Bruno Fernandes found Ronaldo with a superb angled pass. The Portuguese gambled that Ben Davies would be unable to stretch himself to intercept, then fired a right-foot volley into the far corner with devastating precision.
Ronaldo turned provider after 64 minutes, perfectly timing a through ball for Cavani, who lifted a deft shot over Hugo Lloris and into the net. Substitute Marcus Rashford, on for Ronaldo, added a late third as he ran through a chasm in the middle of Spurs’ defence to continue his promising form after returning from shoulder surgery.
Ronaldo’s exit prompted what appeared to be a prolonged explanation from Solksjaer why he was withdrawn; “OK, OK,” Ronaldo replied as he took his place on the bench. In less dramatic fashion than his Champions League winners against Villarreal and Atalanta, he had avoided further dissent or indifference that would have been another blow to Solskjaer’s credentials and provided cutting edge to a professional performance.
Contrast that with Harry Kane. While Ronaldo may be motivated by returning to his former club, Kane continues to look like he would rather be somewhere else — specifically Manchester City — after being denied a move in the summer. He managed one blocked shot and a once ruthless link-up with Son was practically non-existent.
Yet Spurs’ issues are collective, going far beyond their big two. They failed to muster a single shot on target for the first time in a home league game since December 2013 and it is two hours, 16 minutes since they forced an opposing goalkeeper into making a save.
That points to a manager yet to identity a coherent way of playing, an unappealing inertia that could hardly be further removed from the proactive Mauricio Pochettino era, in the shadow of which the club continues to live. So passive were the hosts that a wounded United side was allowed to grow into the game, rediscover confidence and eventually emerge with a comfortable victory.
Both Solskjaer and Nuno are seeking to take a team on from Jose Mourinho’s regressive style. Due to the absence of fans resulting from COVID-19 restrictions, Tottenham last permanent manager did not face the same hostility from fans at what they saw as a betrayal of the club’s attacking heritage; Nuno can be under no such illusions.
“I’m only thinking about the next training session because there are no words that are going to solve the situation,” Nuno said. “The booing and disappointment of the fans is understandable. When they don’t see the team that they expect — and I truly expect we are better than we showed today — they are going to boo. It is up to us to change the mood.”
By then, having earlier paused his media duties to sign autographs, Solskjaer was on his way to boarding the team bus, soundtracked by cheers from the few United fans still in attendance. How quickly things can change.