When Bruno Fernandes curled in Manchester United’s second goal on 69 minutes a seated Erik ten Hag raised his arms in delight. The strike directly followed Harry Kane missing a gilded opportunity to equalise when smashing against David de Gea from close range. From this the hosts raced 80 yards upfield with Antony and the excellent Fred involved before United’s talisman bent a supreme finish past Hugo Lloris for only a second of the season.
Ten Hag had spoken of how more goals would come for Fernandes and provide all that has been missing from the Portuguese. In line with the playmaker’s performance, United’s display this evening felt a significant step forward. They dominated from first whistle to last, Marcus Rashford going close to a third towards the end of a victory that lifts them to 19 points; four behind Tottenham, who remain third, and Manchester City in second.
United have now beaten three of last season’s top-six sides in Arsenal, Liverpool and Antonio Conte’s team. Ten Hag is starting to accrue evidence he may be the best appointment yet of the five permanent managers hired in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era.
The end statistic of 28 shots (to Tottenham’s paltry nine) points to where the Dutchman wishes to take his unit – an attack-first proposition that exerts total control as they did tonight for the first time under him.
The early action all occurred via rapid switches in possession and territory, hardly a surprise as here was a contest pitting a counterattacking unit by default against one by design. United were the former due to Ten Hag’s team being a (sizeable) work in progress while Tottenham, under Conte’s tutelage, were the proponents of quick breaks by design that relied on the devilry of Son Heung-min and Kane.
Both of the latter were in Spurs XI unlike Cristiano Ronaldo for United, who was dropped in favour of Rashford. Ronaldo who would stomp off in a sulk at the end after remaining an unused replacement. His manager had offered a simple statement for his exclusion: that the 37-year-old’s stamina was not up to the “good press” needed to stymie Tottenham’s ease at building from defence.
Fred had been preferred over Scott McTominay to partner Casemiro in midfield and a ball that created the clearest opening was the answer why. Rashford should have scored from it (a theme of his display) but fired too close to Lloris who, seconds later, saved again. This time Fernandes’s free-kick, after a foul on Fred, was tipped over.
United were a red swarm all over their visitors. Dalot raced towards the byline, dug a cross out, and Luke Shaw displayed a technical accomplishment when hammering a volley at the top corner, only for a flying Lloris to repel it. Then Casemiro, at distance, blazed inches wide.
A first sour note for the home outfit came when Fernandes dribbled a pass short for the second time in quick succession. Ten Hag roared disapproval at his captain, though United were soon enjoying more keep-ball, a dazzling moment coming when Antony turned Ivan Perisic inside-out and raced off along the right.
At the close of the first half this was, by a distance, the finest 45 minutes of Ten Hag’s tenure. A goal would’ve crowned it but the sight of Rodrigo Bentancur ripping into Conte indicated the disarray United had Spurs in.
The mission for United was to retain control and, surely, they would breach their opponents. It happened inside two minutes of the second half. Fernandes padded into space, fed Antony and he picked out Jadon Sancho on the other corner of the area. The winger tapped back across to Fred and the Brazilian’s shot pinballed off Ben Davies and in. United jubilation was followed by Rashford going close to a second but Lloris, despite going the wrong way, stuck out a left hand to palm the ball clear.
Tottenham were existing on scraps at best. Sancho unloaded yet another shot before Rashford went down in the area with Eric Dier in close attention. When no penalty was awarded, the centre-forward was as incensed as Ten Hag who fumed on the touchline.
Tottenham had been reduced to a ghost team unable to press United or beat the two- and three-man squeeze Ten Hag’s team put expertly on them when in possession. Might they, though, still somehow pull off the kind of smash-and-grab result they did at Manchester City last season in that 3-2 win? The odds felt severely stacked against it and so it proved.
Ten Hag introduced McTominay for Antony for extra security, then Anthony Elanga and Christian Eriksen later, with Ronaldo performing his walk-off act with four minutes of added time to go. This was all about United’s ascendancy, though.