The first real measuring test of how far Manchester United have progressed under caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer finally arrives Sunday when they face Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley Stadium.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
Solskjaer has won all five of his matches in charge since the sacking of Jose Mourinho, but the opponents United (11-5-5) have faced have been, to use boxing parlance, tomato cans.
Three of the four league wins came against relegation threatened sides – Cardiff City, Huddersfield Town and Newcastle United. The fourth versus a Bournemouth team who take little more than a passing interest in defence.
The Red Devils maintained their 100 percent record under the former Norse striker with a 2-0 victory over Championship side Reading in a third-round FA Cup tie at Old Trafford on Saturday. Solskjaer was able to overturn nine of his starters from a 2-0 win over Newcastle, keeping centre back Phil Jones and midfielder Juan Mata.
Mata opened the scoring on 22 minutes with a penalty after he earned the foul, and Romelu Lukaku scored in first-half stoppage time for his third goal in as many matches since returning from compassionate leave. With the increased confidence in attack – and with good reason since United’s 16 goals since Solskjaer took over match the total from their previous 10 matches in all competitions – the interim boss has promised to try and stay on the front foot for this contest.
“You all know the best teams in the league and of course we have to be aware of their strengths. But I’ve been brought up in a way that we need to attack teams,” he told the club’s official website. “I think that’s our strength as well, going forward and attacking, as a team when you look at us now the way we’ve played.
“We’re not going to get as many chances to attack against these (Spurs) as we’ve had before, so we’ve got to be ready for when we get hold of the ball and play well with it to make sure we use the whole pitch because Wembley is a decent-sized pitch as well.”
Solskjaer confirmed in-form and rejuvenated midfielder Paul Pogba will be available for this match after spending last weekend in the Middle East receiving treatment for a knock suffered against Newcastle, but centre back Marcos Rojo is in his native Argentina receiving treatment for his injury.
Most of the starting XI from the Newcastle match will likely be restored in this encounter, with the centre back pairing of Jones and Victor Lindelof all but certain since Eric Bailly will complete a three-match ban for his straight red card given in the win over Bournemouth.
The lone sticking point is whether Lukaku’s form warrants his first league start since Solskjaer took over. In the current 4-2-3-1 set-up Solskjaer prefers, Lukaku would likely lead the line and push Marcus Rashford onto the right wing, perhaps at the expense of Jesse Lingard.
For Spurs (16-0-5), this is a huge match on many levels. Manchester City’s win over Liverpool also resulted in the north London side getting a lifeline back into the Premier League race as they are now six points behind the table-topping Reds and two back of the reigning champions for second.
It also marks the first opportunity for the Lilywhites to do the double over United since the 1999-2000 season, a chance squandered with a 3-1 loss at Old Trafford in May 2000. Tottenham have not accomplished the feat since the First Division days in 1989-90, but having emphatically thumped United 3-0 in the reverse fixture in August in Manchester to exorcise some of those demons, this is a prime chance for Tottenham show they can handle prosperity and not be “so Spursy.”
Tottenham put some of that talk to rest Tuesday with a 1-0 victory over Chelsea in the first leg of their Carabao Cup semifinal. Harry Kane’s penalty on 27 minutes separated the sides and made him the first player in club history to score 20 or more goals in all competitions in five straight seasons.
“We’re in a good stage, we’re in a semi-final (Carabao Cup) with a 1-0 lead, we’re in the FA Cup and Champions League and we’re not too far off in the Premier League, although there is a long way to go,” Kane told SkySports. “So far, so good, but it’s this stage of the season that we have just fallen behind in the past so it is important this year that we step it up, work even harder and go into these games and try and bring it home.”
Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino downplayed talk of how different this match would be compared to the victory in August, in which Lucas Moura had a brace after Kane opened the scoring with a professional header on 50 minutes off a corner from Kieran Trippier. Instead, the Argentine is expecting a typically tough contest from the fellow perennials.
“It’s going to be a very nice game. Always Tottenham vs Manchester, Manchester vs Tottenham, every time that we play are always exciting, very competitive games,” he said. “Of course this Sunday it will be a very nice game to watch. It will be tough, I think Manchester United arrive in a very good level, with very good momentum.”
This match provided yet another opportunity to link Pochettino with the United job, a position he has yet to offer a definitive answer regarding his interest. This time, though, the question was regarding Solskjaer’s motivation to win this match given he has already come out and said he wants to be the full-time manager of United.
“Of course when you’re a manager or coach you cannot be focused on all the rumours. The most important thing is the motivation that we have to do our job in our best way,” Pochettino said during his Friday press conference. “Of course Manchester is going to come on Sunday trying to win. Of course for him it’s a massive motivation or challenge to manage Manchester United, like for me it’s a massive challenge to be in front for this football club, Tottenham.”
Pochettino does have some selection concerns with the availability of centre back Jan Vertonghen uncertain. The Spurs boss does not lack for options at the position to partner with Toby Alderweireld – whom Mourinho coveted for United this summer – but if Vertonghen cannot pair with his Belgian compatriot, Davinson Sanchez is expected to continue in the role.
This will be the final match for winger Heung-Min Son in the short term, as the South Korea international will join his compatriots for the Asian Cup. Spurs and South Korea worked out an arrangement in which Son would join them after this match, something that has been a massive benefit for Spurs as Son has been in blistering form with seven goals and five assists in his last six matches.
Tottenham are unbeaten in their last six league matches versus United (3-3-0), winning the last three on the trot. United, though, did beat Spurs 2-1 in the last meeting at Wembley in April in the FA Cup semifinals, getting goals from Alexis Sanchez and Ander Herrera to offset an early strike from Dele Alli.
Per Bet365, Spurs are 11/10 favourites to complete their first league double over United in 29 seasons, while United are 13/5 underdogs to maintain their 100 percent mark under Solskjaer. The odds of the sides splitting the points are just behind that at 27/10.
Oddsmakers are expecting another match over 2.5 goals between the clubs, with 8/13 odds compared to 13/10 for under that threshold. They also expect both teams to score in this match, with 8/15 odds United and the Lilywhites bag at least one goal compared to 11/8 odds either David De Gea or Hugo Lloris record a clean sheet.
Kane, not surprisingly, leads the list of first goal-scorers at 3/1, with understudy Fernando Llorente second at 9/2. Perhaps surprisingly, Lukaku rounds out the top three at 5/1, with Moura (6/1) and the in-form Son (13/2) just off that pace. United wingers Anthony Martial (7/1) and Alexis Sanchez (8/1) are next, followed by Alli (8/1) and then a quartet of players at 17/2 — Rashford and Pogba for United, Eriksen and Lamela for Spurs.
For goal-scorers over the course of 90 minutes, Kane is better than even money at 8/11, while Lukaku is the reverse at 11/8. In between is Llorente at 6/5. Moura is 13/8, with Son offering a slightly appealing return at 15/8. Martial is next at 2/1, with Sanchez and Alli again joined together, this time at 9/4.
As United’s usual penalty taker, Pogba is a 5/2 option, level with Rashford, Lamela, and Eriksen.
After five matches, the first clues of what United are going to be all about for the next five months will start being offered with this match. On the bright side, Solskjaer has done everything he should have done with this stretch of schedule: instill a can-do attitude in the offence, have them pour forward and let their attacking talents speak for themselves.
Pogba has been at the heart of this renaissance, finally free to be the attacking midfielder he wants to be with Matic and Herrera providing cover behind him. He is not lacking defensive responsibility, it is just easier to have him in a support role doing so as opposed to counting on him to be the guy who makes those plays Matic and Herrera make consistently.
While it’s fair to say there is pressure on Tottenham in this match, they have done a good job answering to the self-administered pressure they put on themselves as opposed to what the outside world puts on them. Yes, the Wolves loss was “so Spursy,” but on other occasions — most notably their final three Champions League ties and Tuesday’s match against Chelsea — Pochettino’s men have emphatically answered the bell.
United have yet to get punched in the mouth under Solskjaer. No one knows that United are like under him when they trail because they have yet to trail since he has taken over. In fact, there has been only one match in the five they did not lead after the first half-hour.
No one has forced Solskjaer to alter his tactics since arriving at Old Trafford, and how Spurs play this game — especially if Pochettino throws the diamond midfield at them — wil be the first offerings of the Norwegian’s tactical acumen.
Given that Spurs have recorded three consecutive clean sheets, the hedge is the central pairing of Alderweireld and Sanchez remain for this contest.
United’s attack has done well to camouflage their one primary weakness — the back four. Yes they have their first-choice central pairing together because no one else is available, but Lindelof and Jones are not going to get much help if Son Kane, Alli, Moura and Eriksen are all running circles around Matic and Herrera like they were practice cones.
There is little need to go wide on United when you can overflow the middle and force Jones and Lindelof into making decisions. Alli could wind up making the biggest impact of all if he is able to carry to the top of the penalty area.
It is time for Spurs to stand up and be counted. And the expectation is they do just that at Wembley to keep it a three-team race.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Tottenham Hotspur 3, Manchester United 1.