Manchester United keen to reshape top-four battle with win over Spurs
MANCHESTER, England -- Three quick thoughts from Manchester United's 3-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur in the Premier League at Old Trafford on Sunday.
1. United keen to reshape top-four battle
This was the performance Manchester United have been waiting for. Perhaps it was one they envisaged last summer when Louis van Gaal arrived at Old Trafford with his reputation sky high. Eight months later, United obliged. Tottenham were blown away. They were desperately poor, but United played with a verve and vigour they have often lacked in the Van Gaal era.
Their performances have belied their position in the table but they tightened their grip on fourth with a display that may well rank as their best of the season. Encouragingly, and unlike in some of the false dawns, they sustained their excellence for much of the match.
As the collective shone, individuals impressed. Ashley Young was hugely influential. The return of Michael Carrick, who started for the first time since January, was significant. He created the first goal and scored the second. Wayne Rooney's purposeful presence in the forward line was a further factor. He bulldozed his way through for the third goal and provided more movement than either the injured Robin van Persie or the benched Radamel Falcao offer in attack.
In contrast, the failure of Tottenham's plans was exposed when Andros Townsend was removed within half an hour in a reshuffle in which Christian Eriksen was relocated to the right flank. It had become a damage-limitation exercise by then. At a time when Spurs need to make up ground, they lost some.
It will be hard for Tottenham to overhaul a six-point deficit and finish ahead of United now, and, for all their progress under Mauricio Pochettino, they looked a long way off being a top-four side. While they have recorded memorable home wins against Chelsea and Arsenal in 2015, this completed a set of away games against the top five this season. Those five matches have produced a solitary point. Spurs' season has showed they have energy in abundance, but they may require more solidity and quality in such defining games.
As United defeated one rival, they applied pressure to another. Liverpool's need for a win at Swansea on Monday is all the greater now. Wonderfully as Southampton did to procure a point at Chelsea on Sunday, the equation for the final Champions League places may have changed this weekend. Instead of being two from five, as was long suspected, it may be a case of three from four, with Manchester City being dragged into a battle with Arsenal, United and Liverpool.
2. Talisman Fellaini delivers
He is Van Gaal's unlikely talisman. Marouane Fellaini was the expensive indictment of David Moyes, the one-paced player whose limitations seemed to sum up the Scot's unambitious approach. Most expected him to be ushered out of the exit last summer. That his United career has been revived by Van Gaal was first a source of praise, a reason to applaud the Dutchman's alchemy, and then a cause of concern.
United have seemed too reliant on Fellaini. In a squad featuring plenty of players who can play as a No. 10 -- Rooney, Angel Di Maria, Adnan Januzaj, Juan Mata -- Fellaini seems to have been installed in a position that is normally reserved for a creator.
Yet if his selection has led to United being branded direct, the opening goal showed they don't always need to take the aerial route. Normally when passes are directed at the Belgian, they are long balls aimed at the famous fright wig and magnetic chest. This was a welcome example of a calm, considered, grass-skimming piece of distribution, played with typical precision by Carrick. Fellaini latched on to it and angled his shot past Hugo Lloris. It was the match's pivotal moment.
If Fellaini's part in the second goal was altogether more typical, Carrick's was uncharacteristic. The former Evertonian met a corner and, while Nacer Chadli half-cleared his effort, it was only as far as the Englishman, who directed his header into the corner of the net. Yet over the game, this proved that picking Fellaini does not necessitate a one-dimensional approach. He will never be the most inventive, but nor is he simply a target man.
3. Dier sums up Spurs' problems
Dier by name, dire by performance. This was a traumatic experience for Eric Dier. It certainly should not rank as a pleasant one for the entire Tottenham back four. Their defensive limitations were exposed. For once, the often excellent Hugo Lloris could not save them.
It ought to worry Pochettino that even with one of the top three goalkeepers in the league, along with Thibaut Courtois and David De Gea, Spurs have still conceded almost as many goals as bottom club Leicester.
The Argentine has spent much of a season searching for his finest centre-back partnership. Younes Kaboul was given the captaincy and then jettisoned. The unconvincing Federico Fazio endured a spell alongside Jan Vertonghen. Dier's difficulties suggested Pochettino needs another rethink or, unless the underused Vlad Chiriches is recalled, a summer foray into the transfer market.
Overall, it amounted to a nightmare. Perhaps Dier could have tracked Fellaini better for the first goal. Certainly his set-piece marking should have been better for the second, when he stood still, performing an impression of a lamppost, allowing Fellaini to win the first header before Kyle Walker left Carrick unmarked to score. A trio of errors brought three first-half goals: While Nabil Bentaleb, who presented the ball to Rooney, was the prime culprit for the third, Dier's attempted challenge on the England captain was half-hearted.
Even before then, he had allowed Fellaini to sprint away from him for a second time, requiring a fine piece of covering from Danny Rose to prevent Mata from having a tap-in. A combination of poor positional play, a lack of communication and conviction and an inability to cope with Fellaini in the air proved disastrous.
In Dier's defence, others also proved fallible. Walker was troubled by Young and, until he was abruptly withdrawn, was afforded too little protection by Townsend. Bentaleb and Ryan Mason failed to shield the back four.
But the feeling is that Vertonghen, one of the Premier League's best footballing centre-halves, really should be paired with a pure stopper. And rather than stopping United, Dier showed them the way to goal.
Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.