The one note of concern for Manchester United must be that this forceful, mature and tactically intelligent display has only delayed the inevitable. There have been too many false dawns under Ole Gunnar Solskjær and while there was much to admire about the way his team came out fighting after a horrible week, it is too soon to know if exposing Tottenham’s flaws means a corner has been turned.
There have to be more of these performances from United before anyone can say that Solskjær’s job is safe and it must be acknowledged that this victory, sealed by clinical finishes from Cristiano Ronaldo, Edinson Cavani and Marcus Rashford, had something to do with the level of the opposition.
This was a wretched experience for Spurs, who have drifted into mediocrity under their uninspiring manager, Nuno Espírito Santo. Daniel Levy, the club’s chairman, must know that this is unsustainable. Levy heard loud chants calling for him to step down once Rashford had come off the bench to make it 3-0 during the dying stages and there were also loud jeers for Nuno when he replaced Lucas Moura with Steven Bergwijn in the second half, chants of “You don’t know what you’re doing” a reminder that Solskjær is not the only manager with problems.
Nonetheless Solskjær deserves credit for improving United after last Sunday’s shambles against Liverpool. There was a steeliness to the Norwegian’s team, who are up to fifth, but more importantly there was a well-executed plan. The switch to a back three worked, there was a first clean sheet since August and Solskjær could take immense satisfaction from bringing out the best in Ronaldo, who benefited from having Cavani next to him in attack.
United’s veteran front two proved far too wily for Nuno’s defenders and, for Ronaldo, this was a reminder that the 36-year-old’s lack of pressing off the ball will not always prove an impediment to success. The forward’s goal, a brutal volley that seared past Hugo Lloris shortly before half-time, felt like a statement: write me off at your peril.
It was a special effort from Ronaldo, who oozed conviction after being picked out by Bruno Fernandes, and he later set up Cavani’s goal with a deft pass in the 64th minute.
In those moments Solskjær could see a new identity forming, even though the Cavani-Ronaldo partnership has a combined age of 70. United’s manager had to respond after a week of intense speculation over his future and it was encouraging to see him adjust, prioritising solidity over flair, the switch to 3-4-2-1 giving his team more balance and muscle than Spurs.
The changes had a calming effect on United, who were harder to play through with Scott McTominay and Fred a powerful duo in midfield. Solskjær thought McTominay was the best player on the pitch and he also praised Raphaël Varane, who excelled alongside Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelöf at the back after returning from injury. Harry Kane was never allowed a sniff.
Spurs were average, creating little once again. Son Heung-min volleyed over from close range and Cristian Romero had a goal disallowed for offside, but Nuno’s team did not test David de Gea once and it was not a surprise when they fell behind.
United had created the better openings, Cavani’s movement troubling Romero and Eric Dier, and they led after 39 minutes. Fernandes, stationed in the No 10 position, had time to look up and bend a glorious ball over the Spurs left-back, Ben Davies, who had a perfect view of Ronaldo peeling away from him and crashing an angled volley past Lloris.
There was not much that Spurs could have done to stop Ronaldo. There was, however, more that they could do with their overall performance. Their midfielders, Oliver Skipp and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, were poor on the ball, Kane was insipid and it summed up the lack of precision when Giovani Lo Celso bungled an opportunity to release Son in the 51st minute.
United were playing with more intent, Fernandes again sending Ronaldo through to fire past Lloris. Spurs were relieved to see the flag up for offside.
Soon there were boos from the Spurs fans, although it was hard to understand why they turned on Nuno for replacing Moura with Bergwijn. The decision made sense: Moura, willing but aimless on the right, had done little of note.
However the substitution did not improve Spurs. Soon they were two down, Fernandes robbing Skipp and finding Ronaldo. The forward released Cavani, who beat Lloris with a lovely dink.
Spurs, down to eighth, were done. Rashford ran through to slip a third past Lloris and the closing stages played out with United’s fans bellowing their support for Solskjær. After all the whispers of discontent in the dressing room, they have not given up on him yet. More pertinently, the players still believe.