In the Manchester United executive seats on Wednesday, there was celebration and relief, but also some sense of vindication. That was the importance of this, beyond a timely victory. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side had beaten Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham Hotspur, justifying Ed Woodward’s decision to replace one with the other.
There is already a huge contrast in mood from before the game. That single win alone should grant Solskjaer Christmas, the January window and time to bed in any new signings without the club feeling the same pressure of Mauricio Pochettino’s availability. It wasn’t the only contrast this week, though, and the other is arguably much more relevant to Solskjaer’s next test - in the Manchester derby - as well as how the top clubs actually select their managers.
Look at the stark difference between the goals in United-Spurs, and those in the Liverpool and Manchester City matches.
At Turf Moor and Anfield, we saw some exhilaratingly slick football, and utterly exquisite strikes. It was that special level of play that comes from such drilled and imaginative integration that it looks instinctive. Forwards like Sadio Mane and Bernardo Silva are so inherently aware of where teammates will be, and so attuned to the system, that they can take it to the next level and try the kind of self-expression that so fluidly fits.
We did not see this at Old Trafford. Both of the goals from open play represented fairly basic instinct, rather than just looking like instinct. It was players reacting to breaks in play, and largely individual flashes, rather than collective attacks. The first goal was simply Marcus Rashford forcefully latching onto a loose ball from a tackle. The second was just Dele Alli inventively controlling a loose ball from a saved shot. Neither were constructive moves, as we saw with City and Liverpool, to fairly great degrees.
Some of that difference is obviously down to the simple fact those managers have been at the clubs much longer and have much better-set squads - but not all of it. Much of it is down to fundamental outlook and approach. And the whole issue is really about the tactical evolution in the game.
As has been repeatedly discussed in these pages, football has probably gone through a greater and faster transformation in the last decade than many of the previous decades put together, due to the exponential spread of pressing and transitions. That has all combined to necessitate a lot of coaching drilling for teams to first just compete. So, to actually beat the effects of that, and also beat the opposition, the top teams will combine many of these elements in what are highly co-ordinated approaches.
It is extraordinarily difficult to apply, with many figures within the game describing it as “the hardest thing in football now”. It is thereby what really elevates the top teams, and top managers, too.
Consider how Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp - and, for most of his time at Tottenham Hotspur, Mauricio Pochettino - coach their teams. This is why it’s beyond the actual goals that are scored. It’s about the underlying principles.
Guardiola’s first principles are famously to divide training pitches into 18 defined areas and get his players to memorise a mental map of it all, as well as where to move in relation to those areas, their teammates and the ball. Klopp meanwhile drills players in pressing sequences, with single individuals required to press in different ways depending on who has the ball, before reacting in different ways depending on certain “triggers”. It’s military-like. It is only through learning such complex approaches that they can make high-intensity moves look so… simple.
Little wonder many players speak of how they have to do as much “homework” as NFL quarter-backs with their playbooks. Little wonder these are now the two top teams in Europe. The big question is what Mourinho and Solskjaer have done in this regard, and - crucially - what they plan to do.
Managers are never going to give away much tactical detail in press conferences, but it was telling that both spoke about all of this in purely emotional terms after United’s 2-1 win. Solskjaer put the victory down to “players enjoying themselves tonight, taking people on”. Mourinho extended that.
“We didn’t lose because of the attacking set-up,” he said. “We lost because how we came to the game, in a an emotional way. They had more emotion than us.”
The natural conclusion to this - and, to be fair, much of the evidence of the way they work - is that they see attacking football as purely top-down psychological application, rather than internalised learned approaches; about being “brave”, rather than clever.
To give Mourinho his due, there is an intelligent logic to his approach. He believes in “guided discovery”, which is a coaching term to describe players figuring decisions out for themselves, because he believes it actually makes them more unpredictable. It is why his best teams - especially those with forwards of the creativity of Eden Hazard, or now Dele Alli - can look so good when on form. But it’s also why they can look so lost - almost literally - when off the boil.
There’s no underlying blueprint, despite it being increasingly essential in the modern game, which only becomes more pronounced with Mourinho with every passing season. The big question with this spell at Spurs is whether he has learned this approach in his 11 months out of the game, when he undertook that “very deep analysis” of his own career. It does feel a little too much to truly internalise in that short space of time, especially when you effectively learnt the trade 20 years ago, when many of these concepts were not even concrete.
Much of this means United were right to get rid of him. But it doesn’t follow they were right to bring in Solskjaer, which brings us to the bigger question from this week, and what felt so huge before the win over Spurs. Whether they should still be thinking about upgrading for Pochettino.
If a fair excuse for Mourinho is that he learnt his trade over 15 years ago - and reached the very top of it - it often feels like Solskjaer’s ideals come from before that. Yes, to United’s treble team. He invoked that period again after the Spurs match, in fairly vague and open terms.
“Make it simple,” Solskjaer said. “That’s what I’ve been brought up here. That’s the framework we’ve been set out to play.”
But the proven way to play the modern game - and win - isn’t to “make it simple”. It’s to make it look simple. That is a lot harder done. It may, again, be the most difficult thing in football and it's something Pochettino perfected in his best years at Spurs.
This isn’t to say United are set for disaster on Saturday. Their more simplistic approach has been suited to one-off matches against big teams, whose front-foot style allows space for their speedy players to run in behind. But… for individual flashes of inspiration. And that’s the point.
It’s a form of football that lends itself to individual flashes - either in moments or one-off games - rather than collective construction. And, as regards results over the course of an entire campaign, that leads to quite a contrast.