Before the eyes of Sir Jim Ratcliffe, Manchester United were a sportingly dynamic opponent who met exactly the same team in Tottenham in this exciting and fast-paced encounter.
As United’s new 25 percent owner, Ratcliffe could also be excited by the fight and unity of Erik ten Hag’s team, elements that have not always been visible this season. Tottenham also presented a similar picture as they fell behind twice and fought back twice to leave Ange Postecoglou’s side as they arrived: in fifth place, eight points ahead of United with a goal difference of minus five is in seventh place.
That United’s goalscorers Marcus Rashford and Rasmus Højlund scored for the first time in the same game, as the team’s supposed senior strikers, illustrates why their opponents have only been beaten 24 times this season.
Højlund’s opening goal caused the stadium to explode three minutes later. Bruno Fernandes’ pass from midfield was a deft moment of great skill as it split Spurs open and allowed the number 10 to gallop in. A clumsy touch took him wide of the goal, so he deflected across the visitors’ area. Now Destiny Udogie intervened and unintentionally hit the ball to Højlund, whose brilliant finish pierced the roof of the net.
Before and after, Spurs broke through on the right, but each time a poor attack on the ball resulted in Postecoglou turning away in anger. Better was Brennan Johson’s chip, which gave Timo Werner the chance of a debut success, but his header was cleared for a corner by Jonny Evans. When it was delivered, Rodrigo Bentancur was the first to get up, but Diogo Dalot’s equalizer was prevented.
Kobbie Mainoo pivoted balletically to take Oliver Skipp out of what was already a career 100mph, and soon after dropped a slide rule-perfect ball onto Rashford’s toes as United camped in Spurs territory. And now those in white leveled themselves to the joy of Postecoglou and the despair of Ten Hag. Forget all the discourse about the beauty of “Ange-Ball,” that was Route-One-Ball. Pedro Porro pushed a corner in from the left, Aaron Wan-Bissaka let Richarlison rise unchallenged and the Brazilian beat André Onana on the left of the United No. 1.
Postecoglou was also happier as his side kept the ball at around 60% throughout and, when out of possession, were able to force mistakes from United – Dalot and Alejandro Garnacho were two victims – to win the ball back. However, Ten Hag’s men were strong and might have won a penalty when Udogie wrapped his arms around Garnacho in the penalty area. John Brooks rejected the appeals and the VAR backed the referee, which angered Ten Hag.
Ratcliffe, relaxed during an informal pre-match meeting, was invited to one of his new team’s better performances. And after Udogie headed Rashford’s cross against Guglielmo Vicario’s left post, the same player put United ahead.
It was a clever pinball-like sequence in which Højlund played to Fernandes, whose immediate off-lay found Rashford, who was lurking on the left. The number 10’s pass to Højlund was full of speed, but the Dane was cool enough to return it straight to Rashford, who scored just a fourth goal in club colors this season.
Advantage United in a competition that resembles basketball on skates. But not for long, as Spurs equalized so soon after the final whistle of the second half that Ten Hag was no longer in his seat. This was softened by his charges as Skipp easily found Werner, who was also able to relax before rolling the ball to Bentancur. The midfielder’s run into the penalty area was inventive, but United’s inability to sense danger was strange: the Uruguayan’s shot gave Onana no chance.
United were stunned and had to react. Instead, Richarlison won a free-kick, Porro took a corner, Højlund was offside: Spurs were a clever team who let their hosts fall behind, so Ten Hag replaced Christian Eriksen with Scott McTominay. Suddenly Højlund was on fire from Micky van de Ven, who was playing for the first time since his thigh injury in November and is a fast player himself.
But the Dane couldn’t finish, and neither could McTominay, whose shot went wide. Lisandro Martínez was next to replace Evans, the defender who had been out since September with a foot problem, and in stoppage time he saw McTominay miss a golden chance and head in the winning goal.