United’s will­ing­ness to err is reap­ing rich re­wards

The Independent - - Sport / Football - JONATHAN LIEW AT WEM­B­LEY STA­DIUM

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)

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