The clamour for Manchester United to appoint Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as permanent manager sooner rather than later is intensifying after his team showed both their new-found attacking and defensive qualities at Wembley in a pulsating 1-0 victory over Tottenham which leaves them only six points adrift of the top four.
The scoresheet tells us only that United won thanks to a 44th-minute goal from Marcus Rashford but the performance said far, far more and puts the club under huge pressure to end their search for a long-term manager and hand the role to club legend Solskjaer.
United are now level on points with Arsenal in sixth place in the Premier League, closing rapidly on those above, after six wins in a row under the man chosen to temporarily replace the ill-fated Jose Mourinho.
Chief executive Ed Woodward and his board are reported to be looking at Gareth Southgate, Mauricio Pochettino, and Zinedine Zidane as potential appointments for 2019-20 but Solskjaer’s odds must be shortening fast after the way he has given United back their identity.
At Wembley in a match in which Mauricio Pochettino claimed his side produced one of their best ever performances, United’s new-look side still won with an outstanding goal, some superb defending — and 11 saves from goalkeeper David de Gea, who was man of the match.
A delighted Solksjaer insisted, however, that the match was not a job interview between himself and Pochettino.
“This game was never about me or him,” he said. “The media made it out to be but for us it’s just three points. I’m just doing my job every day until the contract runs out at the end of June.
As for this match, we had to beat them today if we wanted to have a chance to catch them because they were 10 points ahead. Now it’s seven points. Seven points is catchable, 13 would have been impossible — so now we have a chance.
“For that reason the win here was massive. The team spirit was massive, the belief and joy in the dressing room was fantastic. Results like this against a big team give you confidence.”
Solskjaer’s impact on this United side and on the supporters who have chanted ‘attack, attack, attack’ at successive under-performing managers since Alex Ferguson retired, has been huge — and was evident here more than ever.
It was an attacking and entertaining game, the kind we probably wouldn’t have got to see had Mourinho stayed in the hotseat at Old Trafford. Or Louis van Gaal, for that matter.
Both teams created early chances with Harry Winks firing wastefully wide for Spurs before Jesse Lingard, Rashford and then Anthony Martial, after a fine weaving run, had efforts of varying quality saved by Hugo Lloris.
The only thing missing for both teams was a ruthless finish as the action flowed from one end of the pitch to the other in the blink of an eye; and when Kane did have the ball in the net after 32 minutes he was correctly ruled offside.
But then, just before half-time, United found a killer touch — and how. A wonderful ball over the top from rejuvenated Paul Pogba caught Tottenham napping and the finish from Rashford, across goalkeeper Lloris, was simply stunning. A classic counter-punch.
The goal means Rashford has scored in each of his last three Premier League fixtures, all under Solksjaer, and took his tally to six goals in the last nine matches in all competitions.
Keeping Spurs out, however, is no easy matter, especially given United’s poor defensive record this season (they had kept only seven clean sheets in all competitions going into this game, two of them under Solskjaer).
It took a string of excellent blocks from de Gea to keep out efforts from Kane and Dele Alli and by the end he took his performance to heroic levels with defiant save after save as Spurs piled forward.
By that stage, Pogba had also switched into overdrive. Highlights included forcing Lloris into a fine save from an Ashley Young cross and then following up his own deflected shot to lob the Spurs keeper, only for his international team-mate to tip it over the bar. The change in Pogba since Mourinho’s departure is quite remarkable and the only question is does his transformation tell us a story about Solskjaer’s motivational skills — or provide a more uncomfortable tale of how United’s key man has deliberately held back until now?
Whatever the answer, he was brilliant here. He forced Lloris into a another fine save with a shot from Martial’s pass after 61 minutes and was a driving force throughout.
United had to defend with the same kind of energy, too — and with increasing urgency as Spurs launched a feverish and energetic response in the final stages.
As always it needed de Gea to hold firm. One save with his feet at the near post from Toby Alderweireld stands out, but there were many, many more — including a flying two-handed stop from the exasperated Alli.
For me it was one of the best 45-minute performances I saw from Tottenham,” insisted Pochettino afterwards. “That’s football. Sometimes you deserve it but don’t win. At Old Trafford we won the game 3-0 but I wasn’t happy. This time we lost but I was happy.
“If you want to build a team in future that will be close to winning big titles that’s the way you have top play. We created enough chances to score goals and win the game.”
In keeping with the attacking nature of the game, Pochettino brought on striker Fernando Llorente for midfielder Winks in an bid to find an equaliser; but one final, excellent save from de Gea, denying Kane, sealed an impressive win for United.
In injury time, too, a sliding block from Luke Shaw to prevent Kieran Trippier crossing and another from substitute Diego Dalot to snuff out a Spurs attack, summed up United’s new defensive steel to match their attacking intent. What a remarkable transformation it has been.
The one consolation for Spurs fans is that United may already have found a long-term replacement for Mourinho. And it isn’t Pochettino.
Lloris 7; Trippier 6, Alderweireld 7, Vertonghen 6 Davies 6; Sissoko 6 (Lamela 43; 6), Winks 7 (Llorente 81; 6), Eriksen 7, Alli 8, Son 6, Kane 7.
De Gea 9; Young 7, Lindelof 8, Jones 7, Shaw 7; Lingard 6 (Dalot 83; 6), Herrera 8, Matic 7, Pogba 8 (McTominay 90), Martial 7 (Lukaku 73; 6), Rashford 8.