Manchester United produced arguably their best performance of the season to beat Tottenham, 3-0, at Old Trafford and gain a significant advantage in the race for the top four. All three goals came via a first-half display that stirred the locals in a way that has rarely been the case since Louis van Gaal took charge last summer, and indeed since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson.

Marouane Fellaini, Michael Carrick and Wayne Rooney found the target to take advantage of a Spurs side that were horribly over-run and left assessing the damage to their own ambitions this season.

For United, there is now some much-needed cause for optimism going forward in a crucial run-in to the end of the campaign. A 2-1 home defeat to Arsenal in the FA Cup quarterfinals on Monday had contained everything that has been wrong with United this season. Having for so long ground out the results necessary to remain in the top four, despite the standard of performances remaining mediocre, there was reason for trepidation entering a spell of five games in which they would take on four of the Premier League’s top six.

But the signs on Sunday were of a team getting the message that the next few weeks could determine their fate and that a failure to improve was liable to see the club miss out on the Champions for a second-straight season. 

Fellaini, so often the symbol for the decline of Manchester United, caused Tottenham all manner of problems behind the infectiously industrial Rooney. And the Belgian’s almost unique physical attributes allowed United the option to play the ball long and escape the high-pressing style of Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino before seizing upon an exposed and wilting visiting defense. But United were undeniably helped, too, by the return to midfield of Michael Carrick, as well as the man he replaced, Daley Blind, adding a valuable creative outlet from left-back.

It was that duo that combined to put United in front just nine minutes in. Blind’s versatility and passing acumen was in evidence as he picked out the intelligent run of Carrick, who took advantage of the cavernous gap in Spurs’ midfield, to step forward and instantly pick out typically high-quality pass. Fellaini was the recipient, running in behind the bewildered Tottenham backline before showing some ability with his feet to fire low into the far corner of the net.

The hosts, who had shown some all too familiar bouts of nervousness in defense in the early exchanges, then really began to dominate proceedings. In doing so, United were aided by a first Premier League start in almost two months for Juan Mata. Lining up in place of the suspended Angel di Maria, Mata added extra incisiveness and tempo to United’s passing, which has too often been purposeless this season. The combination with his fellow Spaniard Ander Herrera will have been particularly pleasing to Van Gaal.

Mata had his part to play in United’s second goal, 10 minutes after the first. The former Chelsea’s man’s corner was floated in for Fellaini to beat Eric Dier in the air, and, while Nacer Chadli got in a block, the ball fell for Carrick, who did superbly to get the precision and power on his standing header to beat Lloris into the corner.

Tottenham had shown that they could match up mentally as well as physically against the Premier League’s best in recent times, with victories over Chelsea and Arsenal. And Pochettino’s men had also bounced back from defeat in the Capital One Cup final with two victories that meant they went into Sunday’s fixture just three points back of United. But a young side, and especially the midfield duo of Nabil Bentaleb and Ryan Mason, struggled to get to grips with their opponents. It was telling that Pochettino brought Mousa Dembele on in place of Andros Townsend to try to strengthen his side’s center just 31 minutes in.

Tottenham were more secure in the second half, but much of that can be put down to a lessening of the attacking intensity of United, with the game having already been decided. Just three minutes after Dembele’s arrival, Bentaleb gifted the ball to Rooney deep inside his own half. Rooney seized upon the chance to run at a beleaguered Spurs defense and bounded past Dier before confidently rolling a shot past Lloris. His celebration, mocking a boxing-related tabloid story over the weekend, was indicative of the feel-good factor that had permeated Old Trafford.

Mason created an opening and shot wide early in the second half, but it wasn’t until the 89th minute that Tottenham’s talisman this season, Harry Kane, marshaled impressively by Chris Smalling, had an effort on goal. But David de Gea managed to just about prevent the ball creeping between his legs and ensure it was the perfect day for Manchester United.

The win moves them back to within a point of Arsenal, and somewhat implausibly just two behind local rivals and champions Manchester City in second place. They have now showed the standard that will be required to see them finish in the same position come the season’s end.