United’s willingness to err is reaping rich rewards
We’re 15 seconds in, and Paul Pogba tries his first raking long ball of the evening: a graceful, cultured parabola of a pass from just outside the centre circle, looking for the run of Marcus Rashford down the right. The ball curves off the outside of his boot, skims across the Wembley turf, and skids out of play, around 30 yards from his intended target. The Spurs fans holler and howl.
About 20 minutes later, Pogba tries something similar: a little look, a short backlift, a long raking through ball, this time over the top looking for Jesse Lingard. To more hearty cheers from the home contingent, the
pass is well overhit, and Hugo Lloris claims the ball with his usual hearty relish, like a kid who’s just found a caterpillar in the garden and really, really wants to keep it.
Next it’s Jesse Lingard’s turn, gathering in a long clearance from Victor Lindelof and knocking it exquisitely into the path of Anthony Martial. The ball’s up at an awkward angle, but if Martial can bring it down cleanly, he’s through on goal. He can’t. The chance dissolves. Next Lingard brings the ball down at the far post and, with the goal gaping, slices it horribly over.
But then, that’s the thing about attacking football. Even with the very best personnel, finely drilled and in peak condition, it’s a dice roll. Even the most profligate passer will nail one every now and again; even the most efficient will occasionally stick one straight into the electronic hoardings. Even the best finishers have days when they can’t seem to miss the goalkeeper. Tottenham, and Harry Kane in particular, found that out here.
The question, then, is how you deal with the misses. The mistakes. The failures. Do you discourage them, discipline them, eliminate them, get tough on misplaced through balls, tough on the causes of misplaced through balls? Or do you clap your hands on the touchline, give your errant midfielder a thumbs-up and tell him to have another go? Because, despite all the available evidence, you suspect he might just be onto something?
There’s no right answer to that question, of course. But what’s clear, even at this early stage, is that Manchester United seem to be transitioning from the first type of manager to the second. Jose Mourinho, both at United and before, was a manager obsessed with what he described as “mistakes”: infelicities in possession, wrong decisions, the minor errors that swing a game. It’s why in big games like this, he tried to direct play up the flanks as much as possible. Above all, when assessing any tactic Mourinho was consumed by one predominant thought: what if this doesn’t work?
From what we’ve seen of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, on the other hand, he comes at things from a slightly different perspective. For one thing, his team immediately seem to have a little more snap to them. A wellrested XI pressed with vigour from the front, Lingard winning the ball from his England team-mate Dele Alli in midfield. There were bodies in the box and there was pace on the break. And so as United rapped waywardly at the door during the first half, Solskjaer didn’t seem overly perturbed. Because you could tell he was thinking: what if this works?
After all, when you’re trying your luck on a hopeful long ball, the odds may be stacked against you. But the defending need to get lucky every single time. You only need to win once. And on the stroke of half-time, Kieran Trippier gave the ball away to Lingard, Lingard laid the ball off to Pogba, Pogba shimmied the ball out of his feet with the sophistication of a man in his element, and curled the ball deliciously into the path of Rashford. Six touches and eight seconds after winning back possession, United - with just 41 per cent possession and having completed just two passes in the opposition penalty area - were ahead.
Occasionally, of course, the old muscle memory seemed to kick in. Since arriving as interim manager, Solskjaer seems to have released the full-backs to get forward, but there was still an ingrained trepidation to Ashley Young as they did so: a few nervous steps, then a check back inside, then a look round to see if it was maybe a trap, and they were about to get strafed by a sniper from a watchtower. Only when they were satisfied no harm would befall them did they proceed, gingerly, over the halfway line.
And sure, for United the second half was more about their defence than their attack. Had it not been for David de Gea, after all, they’d probably have lost, and United would have been the club back in crisis, Solskjaer the hopelessly naive chancer, Pogba the prodigal wastrel. But had it not been for the strength of character and clarity of vision they displayed in the first half, they wouldn’t have had a lead to defend in the first place. Ultimately, that’s what this performance was about: the courage to try, and try again, and fail, and fail again, and ultimately fail better.
Under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, United now have the courage to make mistakes (Getty)