A routine victory over an error strewn and off colour Manchester United brought Town 3 valuable points and a third victory of a season which had turned slightly sour over recent weeks.
As expected, David Wagner learned quickly from the drubbing handed out in the last home game by a frighteningly superior Spurs side and, assisted by the availability of more midfield options, set up a team brimming with energy, commitment and bravery.
From the very beginning, the illustrious and storied visitors were knocked out of their usual swaggering stride as the Terriers maintained a solid defensive shape and found a near perfect balance between aggression and discipline, even if they collected a couple of early yellow cards which could have proven costly against a side containing an abundance of tricky, pacy players.
Deliberately conceding possession and abandoning the habit of knocking the ball around the back which had undone them at the Liberty Stadium, Town’s rope a dope strategy worked perfectly on an afternoon where the synergy between crowd and team reached new heights.
Up top, Depoitre discomforted the visitors’ back four with a rampaging display which planted seeds of doubt amongst their ranks and those seeds flowered quickly once Manchester were deprived of the services of Phil Jones who succumbed, yet again, to injury.
Despite the probing of Martial, Lingard and Valencia down the flanks, all of United’s play floundered in the last third with Lusaka shackled by the blossoming Schindler/Zanka combination and the tenacity of those around them. Attempts to play through the lines were even more easily rebuffed and opportunities to break began to emerge.
A 3 on 2 break following a Town corner caused the greatest alarm only for the alert Kachunga, whose day was to be curtailed before half time with a back injury, to sprint back and intercept the danger.
Coping comfortably with their opponents’ often crude attempts to break them down, Town always looked capable of springing forward with purpose and the visitors looked unusually vulnerable at the back, particularly with Jones’ withdrawal, and Mata’s uncharacteristic sloppiness in control finally opened the door.
Mooy, playing in a very deep 10 role, intercepted the Spaniard’s attempt to recover from a poor first touch and, easily shrugging off Mata’s attempt to pull him back, burst forward with menace. To his left, Ince had bust a gut to get alongside and was released by the Australian. Twisting substitute Lindelöf one way then the other, Ince’s shot was parried by De Gea but only in to the path of Mooy who swept home the opener.
If Town are extremely vulnerable once they go behind, the opposite is true if they edge in front with exemplary game management allowing them unprecedented numbers of single goal victories. Minutes later their lead doubled when a long clearance was comically cocked up by the hapless Lindelöf allowing the lurking Depoitre to take a fine first touch which rounded the stranded De Gea and the less illustrious Belgian on the field stroked the ball in to an unguarded net.
Town fans were now in dreamland. The manager, rightly, favours vision over dreams, but for folk who have witnessed 1-0 defeats to Orient or Hartlepool on miserable Tuesday nights, relentless ineptitude in seasons of struggle and days where hope appeared extinguished, leading the behemoth of English football by 2 goals, and deserving it, was barely within the realms of possibility.
Manchester United were severely wounded by the self inflicted setbacks and their global fan base must have been rubbing their eyes with disbelief as a club many have barely heard of dismantled their team of elite talent. In this, they had something in common with 20,000 plus Yorkshiremen looking on in awe.
Late United flurries were dealt with comfortably as half time approached and a score line reverberating around the globe was maintained.
Grit and determination, combined with guile at the right times, had created an intensity which the Old Trafford outfit could not match, but the sanctuary of the away dressing room and an angry José Mourinho offered the chance for them to plot redemption.
Slightly improved in the second half – the celebrated if unloved Portuguese withdrew the petulant Martial and the ineffective Mata for Rashford and Mkhitaryan – United still struggled to make an impression on a superbly marshalled home side featuring a defensive midfield duo in Hogg and Williams who broke up the visitors’ best intentions with disciplined aggression, superb awareness and unbridled energy.
Smith and Löwe, with their best displays of the season by a distance, assisted by Ince and Van La Parra (on for Kachunga shortly before half time), coped with United’s wave of attacks down the sides despite the introduction of the excellent Rashford while Lukaku’s influence continued to be suppressed.
Half time had also seen the weather worsen as the outer edges of a storm caused a little bit of a wind and some driving rain, though it is difficult to rationalise how a team that plies its trade in Manchester could complain of disadvantage.
The magnificent Depoitre continued to bully defenders and provide the perfect outlet for his team but, wether planned or in recognition of his extraordinary exertions, he was replaced with 20 minutes to go by Mounié. While it was good to see the Frenchman return from injury at last, he couldn’t perform the same role to the same effect and his languid style had a detrimental impact on the pattern of the game.
Thankfully, Van La Parra, who mesmerised at times without creating enough real danger for the visitors, was a reliable out ball for an increasingly exhausted Town rearguard. His ability to get us up the pitch was invaluable as pressure relief – another feature of Wagner’s remarkable game management since he has transformed the club.
United’s quality had rarely been in evidence, though the touch and pace of Rashford caused occasional palpitations, and Lössl had not been called in to action until he repulsed a Herrera header fairly late on, but was finally seen in the 78th minute when Lukaku, rather than let a ball go out for a corner, chased it down, created half a yard of space and delivered the type of cross he himself must have been yearning for all afternoon. Deep, swinging and undefendable, Rashford couldn’t miss as he arrived at the back stick.
Manchester United’s propensity for late goals, stretching way back to the Ferguson era, should have set alarm bells ringing but, spurred on by a crowd which subdued red celebrations as they sensed the team needed them more than ever, Town found another level of resilience to resist the visitors’ increasingly crude assaults.
Hogg and Williams’ protection of their back four intensified with the former making crucial tackles and interceptions and the latter carrying the ball away from danger with power and grim determination. Van La Parra continued to run down the clock with mazy runs and trickery and could even have set up others for a third and decisive goal had he looked up earlier once or twice.
There was one, final, scare in the four minutes added time the referee had found from somewhere. Yet another cross in to the box evaded defensive head on its way to Smalling, by now playing as an auxiliary front man, only for Zanka to haul his injured body in front of the shot and Town’s historic and hugely significant victory was confirmed.
Mounié’s largely ineffective 20 minutes aside, every player excelled in a monumental performance. A deep midfield trio suppressed United at source, Zanka put in his mot accomplished performance to date alongside the ever superb Schindler, Van La Parra excelled in his role (as had Kachunga), Ince offered pace and defensive discipline and the full backs came of Premier League age.
It is difficult to choose between the performances of Williams and Depoitre as the most influential, surrounded as they were with examples other outstanding achievements, and it is perhaps more pertinent to reflect upon the combined efforts of a magnificent team effort against an elite club brimming with talent.
The discipline required to deny quality players time and space cannot be over emphasised – United were shackled by Town hunting in packs but with discipline and an ability to restore shape effortlessly.
Wagner’s ability to learn lessons, leave the past in the past and create solutions for increasingly difficult challenges remind remarkable and, yesterday, he went toe to toe with, whatever people think of him as a person, one of the finest coaches in the world. Visions, not dreams.
For us mere mortals, and a fair few in attendance could remember United’s last visit including 2 of the 3 scorers on that day, defeating an institution on our resources remains barely conceivable – Wagner will already have moved on to plotting how to outwit his friend next week.
Whatever happens this season, the euphoria of yesterday will be remembered and relived for many, many years to come.