Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s dramatic formation shift was described as a “last throw of the dice” by Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville ahead of Manchester United’s crucial trip to Tottenham.
By full-time, it seemed as though the under-pressure United manager had come up with a winning formula, which covered for his team’s weaknesses and enhanced their strengths.
After last weekend’s 5-0 thumping by Liverpool left United way off the pace in the Premier League, and with Tottenham and Manchester City to play before the international break, Solskjaer’s future was on the line.
His response was to overhaul the set-up.
Solskjaer went to a three-man defence, with the fit-again Raphael Varane in alongside Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof. Defensive midfielders Scott McTominay and Fred remained in the centre of the park, with Edinson Cavani forming a front two with Cristiano Ronaldo, with Bruno Fernandes just behind.
“This is one of the most defensive Man Utd teams I think I’ve ever seen,” said Neville before the game. “It’s a poor reflection on the more talented players in the squad that he can’t trust them to do the work without the ball.”
But by recognising those shortcomings, Solskjaer managed to find a short-term solution.
A dangerous combination in attack
In attack, Fernandes, Cavani and Ronaldo combined brilliantly.
It was Fernandes’ excellent floated pass which Ronaldo expertly volleyed in for the opener. It was a classy finish from United’s No 7 – but positionally he benefited by having a strike partner in Cavani.
“I watched Ronaldo at the back post and his movement is special,” said Neville. “That shuffle to the left to get onside, then the movement in behind. The pass is perfect. Can he finish? It’s wonderful from Cristiano Ronaldo. A special goal. There’s only one place he can put it.
“It’s a brilliant goal. We talked about the impact on Bruno of Ronaldo but they’ve connected there.
“Ronaldo has to have a partner. He has to have someone up there with him. This system allows that.”
For the second, Fernandes was again key, winning the ball back off Oliver Skipp. But from there it was the link-up between Ronaldo and Cavani which tore Spurs apart.
“That little Cruyff turn past Skipp and that pass [from Ronaldo]. That run, that finish [from Cavani]. World class.
“We’ve seen two really special goals from Man Utd. Cavani deserved that goal but he can owe it to his team-mate and strike partner Cristiano Ronaldo. That pass is absolutely wonderful before he dinks it over Hugo Lloris.”
A solid foundation
Behind that front three, United – with more bodies in defence – formed a much tighter unit than they had against Liverpool. The yawning holes in their backline that their rivals exploited last weekend were nowhere to be seen on Saturday.
Tottenham did not land a shot on target.
That may be indicative of their own attacking problems – and the unrest among the Spurs supporters was a reminder of the mounting pressure on Nuno Espirito Santo, too – but it was also comfort for a United defence which had been scorched less than a week ago.
“We’ve said for weeks and months that this United team play in moments but you’ve got to have a good foundation of clean sheets and good defending,” said Neville.
“Those three up front will always create chances and score goals but they need that base to work from.
“If you look at that Man Utd unit, how close they are from front to back – Varane to Ronaldo; 25-30m maximum. It’s been like that most of the game.
“In previous weeks it’s been 40-50m. It’s been disjointed, disconnected but it’s a lot more difficult for Spurs to play through this Man Utd team.”
Experienced players deliver
Of course, a system is only as good as the players in it and, with the pressure on, Solskjaer turned to some of the most experienced men in his squad.
Varane brought calm at the back, while Cavani and Ronaldo set the standard of commitment required by the younger players in the group.
“Varane has made a massive difference at the back. You can talk about the change in system but he’s brought massive composure to that back three,” said Neville.
“Cavani? You see his face when he scored the goal. He’s got a massive personality and character that the team lack when he doesn’t play. He fights for every single ball, he’s hungry, chases things down. He’s demanding.
“But the man who won Manchester United this match is Cristiano Ronaldo. That finish was incredible and then that bit of composure when the game was frantic and on a knife-edge.”
But this is just the start…
United are not out of the woods yet.
Next they go to Atalanta in the Champions League and then they host Manchester City on Saturday lunchtime.
“It’s a massive week for Solskjaer and he’s started if off just how he would have wanted,” said Neville after Marcus Rashford made it 3-0.
“The pressure was intolerable building up to this game. But they’ve produced a good performance, even though people will talk about how poor Spurs were.
“Most importantly, they’ve looked like a team out of possession. He’s got them compact and tight and there’s been an intensity. They’ve counter-attacked off that and produced the moments we know they can produce.
“It gives Manchester United and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer a little bit of breathing space before the Champions League game.”
Tottenham host Vitesse in the Europa Conference League on Thursday at 8pm before travelling to Everton in the Premier League on Sunday at 2pm.
Manchester United visit Atalanta in the Champions League on Tuesday at 8pm before hosting Manchester City on Saturday at 12.30pm – live on Sky Sports Premier League.