16 Conclusions: Tottenham 2-0 Manchester United

Date published: Wednesday 31st January 2018 10:55

* In December, Manchester United beat Arsenal 3-1 despite allowing 16 shots on their own goal. So frustrated was Arsene Wenger by the performance of David de Gea, the poor finishing of his team and United’s smash-and-grab victory that he brought up expected goals in his post-match interview.

“Arsenal played, in some periods, amazing attacking football – creating difficulties for us,” was Jose Mourinho’s take. “But I have to say that my players deserve all the great words. I don’t know so many in English but amazing, phenomenal, fantastic. They deserved three points.”

You win some, you lose some. If United’s last trip to north London produced a surprisingly open match in which they allowed an alarming number of shots, the same occurred on Wednesday evening. If December brought some clinical United finishing and a De Gea masterclass to win the game, they were able to rely on neither on the final day of January. Even the most partisan United supporter could not argue that they were well beaten at Wembley after six straight victories at the stadium.

 

* Mauricio Pochettino needed this. Boy did he need this.

There has been speculation about Tottenham’s manager leaving for Real Madrid, but right now all that matters is keeping Spurs in the Champions League for as long as possible this season and ensuring they remain in the competition next season. That means getting past one of Chelsea, Manchester United or Liverpool. Anything else and he is deemed to have taken a step backwards, however harsh that might sound.

Tottenham’s struggles away from home remain (they have now won just four of their last 87 away games against Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool and were comfortably beaten at the Etihad in December), and that only increases the pressure on their home form. Pressure? What pressure?

As well as the best centre forward in world football, Tottenham possess one other trump card: at peak performance, only Manchester City have a higher ceiling. The home games against City and Chelsea last season and the home victories over Liverpool, Real Madrid and United this campaign showed as much. There are games when everything clicks and opposition teams cannot touch them. There are valid arguments about Tottenham’s consistency and stomach for the fight in April and May, but that doesn’t change the fact that, on their day, this team can teach anyone a lesson.

Draws against West Ham and Southampton can now be put to one side; Tottenham are ready to push on again. If they keep Kane, Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli and Heung-min Son fit and integrate Lucas Moura successfully, a top-four place that looked to be slipping away from them can be achieved once more.

 

* Wondering which formation United would play before the teams were announced was really interesting. They have been unusual this season in that their most important outfield player (Paul Pogba) has been missing from all but one of their big away games. That has made Mourinho’s decisions for him.

The only notable away game Pogba has played in was that Arsenal game, when United won 3-1 but conceded a host of clear chances and were grateful to De Gea for keeping them in the match. Mourinho would have been alarmed at their openness in that game with Pogba alongside Nemanja Matic. Matic was left exposed, and Mourinho would surely look to address that at Wembley?

One option was to go with a back three, which made sense given the debut of Alexis Sanchez. The Chilean could play in a two with Romelu Lukaku but drift wide and deep as he does so effectively. Jesse Lingard would take the other midfield position, with Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial both left out.

Or would Sanchez’s arrival spark a new dawn at Old Trafford? Mourinho has always insisted that his defensive mindset in away games against the best teams was purely based on United’s strength lying in defensive areas – surely that had now changed? A 4-2-3-1 with Sanchez, Lingard and Martial or Rashford behind Lukaku with Pogba and Matic deeper would be very attacking, but why not? If you’ve got it, flaunt it. And that’s where we ended up, for better or worse.

 

* If we needed something to focus the mind back on the actual football after a day of transfer silliness, the third quickest goal in Premier League history was pretty effective. It was also the quickest goal Manchester United have ever conceded in the competition and – frustratingly for Mourinho – came via a simple route one ball.

Jan Vertonghen sent the pass high and long, Kane won his header against Phil Jones, Chris Smalling could only block Alli’s shot and Eriksen guided the ball home like a man who had only just completed his pre-match shooting drills.

Manchester United supporters have enjoyed poking fun at Liverpool for spending £75m on Virgil van Dijk and Manchester City for spending £57m on Aymeric Laporte, but the truth is that they would love their club to spend a similar fee on someone to replace Smalling or Jones – or at least they should. Eric Bailly is an excellent defender, but he has now missed 37 matches as a United player. That isn’t sustainable, and goodness knows what has happened to Victor Lindelof.

 

* It took almost five minutes on the television coverage, but the conclusion was eventually correct: the opening goal should not have stood. The rules state that every player must be in their own half when the kick-off is taken, and Kane had strayed two yards into opposition territory.

It is something you cannot blame Andre Marriner for not spotting, because a) he cannot have his eyes in every place at once, and b) this happens all the time. Yet given that Kane won the header to create the chance, it was crucial. I fear I’m going to end up saying this an awful lot in the coming months (and not doing so with any flourish because I’m not wholly in favour), but VAR would have picked it up.

 

* United responded straight away, with Lingard only thwarted by Hugo Lloris’ leg and the away team creating two other dangerous attacks in the first five minutes. That was to be the pattern of the match: United looking dangerous going forward, but so easily picked off on the counter attack and opened up at will.

This is the problem with the 4-2-3-1, because it leaves Pogba without a natural position. Matic will be criticised for his performance and so too Pogba, but the Serbian was left exposed by the Frenchman’s very natural tendency to push forward. As soon as Tottenham turned over possession, Matic was left picking up Eriksen and Alli. No defensive midfielder in Europe could hope to stop both of those at their best.

Yet Mourinho must have predicted that, and he knows Pogba’s attacking tendencies better than anyone. Either he picked the wrong plan, or the wrong players for the right one.

In fact, United resembled Arsenal or Liverpool rather than a typical Jose Mourinho team. This was ‘roll the dice’ football rather than the controlled play that we have grown accustomed to under the Portuguese.

 

* There is an urban myth that you are never more than six feet from a rat. It’s nonsense, of course, but there is an accurate football version of the claim: you are never more than 15 minutes away from Phil Jones doing something silly.

At first glance, Tottenham’s second goal seemed unfortunate. Kieran Trippier’s cross rebounded off Jones and flew past De Gea, who could do nothing to react and stop the ball from going in. Yet the replays indicated that Jones was to blame, not Lady Luck.

It’s been a bugbear of this feature before, but defenders who cannot trust themselves to clear the ball with their weaker foot should not be picked for teams with aspirations of winning trophies. It is such a basic flaw, and so easily worked on in training, that there is no excuse.

Rather than clearing with his left foot, Jones chose to go with his right. That meant the ball was always more likely to go towards his goal than away from it, and increased the chance of mishap. When Jones is around, those chances are already high.

 

* The other major talking point of the first half was the possible penalty for Tottenham that would have taken them out of sight, and I think Marriner got the decision wrong. It is true that Antonio Valencia got a touch on the ball, but that only matters if he touched the ball before the man. He didn’t.

The problem with the scissor-type challenge that defenders sometimes choose to use is that their trailing (or non-tackling) leg makes contact with the opponent’s standing leg before the tackling leg connects with the ball. There is no blame attached to Marriner for not spotting it, but that’s exactly what happened here.

 

* United fans were right to celebrate the arrival of Sanchez, but amid the noise and fanfare there was a valid question about where he would play. The pursuit of Ivan Perisic last summer was because Mourinho wanted a right-sided attacking midfielder to supply Lukaku. That obviously changed when Sanchez became available.

Sanchez has played on the right before, both at Udinese and Barcelona, but in his first interview made it pretty clear that he did not want to go back to that position.

“I really like to play down the left, through the middle, but to tell you the truth, as long as I’m playing football, I’ll fit in anywhere,” Sanchez said, but he had already given the game away. If you don’t mention the right, you’d rather not play there.

Having pulled rank, Sanchez did indeed start on the left, creating two problems for United. The first was that it created gaps on that flank with Trippier and Eriksen or Alli able to double up on Ashley Young with Pogba and Sanchez caught forward. Secondly, Martial has been largely awful on the right for United, and that continued against Spurs until he was switched.

 

* Having been dismal in the first half, the least we expected was for United to respond in the second having had their ears chewed off by Mourinho at half-time. Yet the second half was actually more disappointing than the first.

At worst, we expect Mourinho’s teams to be resilient. We expect them to be angered by adversity, and determined to right wrongs just like their manager. We don’t expect a limp acceptance of defeat, with the opposition crowd ole-ing regularly during the last 20 minutes.

The second half was a training exercise for Pochettino’s team. They seemed keen to service Kane and provide him with his 100th Premier League goal, playing pretty passes around the penalty area and keeping possession for minutes on end. The only surprise was that they did not add to their lead from 22 shots taken. United had one shot on target in the second half, and none after the 56th minute.

You have to be wary of falling foul of post-match hyperbole, but I think I’m avoiding it when I say that United were just on the end of one of the most one-sided games between ‘Big Six’ teams all season. This was a collection of Mourinho’s worst hits, and supporters are right to be concerned about a gap to Manchester City that shows little sign of shortening. The team in second were held at arm’s length by the team in fifth.

 

* I know banter is a precious metal, but let’s not let it get in the way of truth. Fellaini was not substituted because he is crap or because Mourinho got very angry at him in his seven minutes on the pitch, but because he was injured. On BT Sport, the commentary team got very excited about him going straight to the dressing room as if he was angry. Again, that’s what players do when they’re injured.

 

* One thing we can finally put to bed: if such thing as a Wembley hoodoo ever existed, it does not anymore. Teams of all shapes and sizes have now visited Tottenham’s temporary home and left bruised.

Since the disappointing 1-1 draw at home to Burnley in September, Spurs have played 17 home games. They have won 13 of those, drawn three and lost just one. They have scored 41 times and conceded 17. If Wembley is struck by a curse, it’s haunting the away dressing room now.

 

* Stating the bleeding obvious here, but Tottenham look a damn sight better when Eriksen is in the team. The Dane is often criticised when things go awry, but just look how he makes them tick.

On Wednesday, Eriksen played 68 passes at a completion rate of 93%, most often in attacking areas with opponents surrounding him. He created six chances, while the other 27 players created 16 between them. He had the second most touches of the ball on the pitch, despite full-backs and deeper-lying midfielders generally leading on that measure. Talk about making up for lost time.

 

* In the build-up to the game, Mourinho moved to cut off questions about Rashford’s game time at source, ending his answer with a missive: “The whole story of Marcus will not get minutes and matches, that story is really old because he’s a very important player for us.”

Classic Jose, and it was no surprise to see Rashford on the bench again. Every time Manchester United’s manager says something, it’s worth asking yourself why he’s saying it, and why he’s saying it now.

Mourinho’s message might be that worrying about Rashford’s minutes is a foolish pastime, but then make me a fool. At 20 you want to be starting every game, and Rashford has been given three league starts since November and his only starts of any kind since Boxing Day have come against Derby County and Yeovil Town. If the positive spin is that he will be fresh for the World Cup, that is scant consolation in the present.

If Mourinho is intending to stick with a 4-2-3-1 formation then it gives Rashford his best chance of getting games, but if Sanchez and Lukaku will start every one then Rashford, Martial, Lingard and Juan Mata are competing for two places. Mourinho doth protest too much.

 

* This website has always been very pro-Luke Shaw, partly because we think he could be ace and partly because he had his leg broken in an injury could have ended his career. He is still mentally recovering.

But even if we didn’t root for Shaw, the decision to bring Ashley Young back in for him was an odd one. Shaw has started five of United’s last six games and looked excellent for most of that time.

“He played very well,” said Mourinho on January 19. “He was already improving and playing well when I started playing him after that long spell without minutes.

“Now with a good run of matches and continuity, playing like he did against Everton – two days after another match – good, solid, physically much better, mentally much stronger, tactically understanding much better the game and what we need of him. I’m really happy and, you like the transfer market, I can say in this moment I don’t see many left backs better than this Luke Shaw.”

Mourinho knows Shaw better than me, but I fail to see how lauding a player only to drop him for a massive match helps the confidence of a young man who clearly relies on it.

 

* I’d normally save the last conclusion for the game’s best player, but there are too many to single out just one. Davinson Sanchez, Vertonghen and Mousa Dembele were all superb after recent poor performances and haven’t even been name-checked yet, with Dembele in particular helping to control the midfield in the manner that Pogba should have. Kane held the ball up brilliantly, Eriksen has already been praised and Son is one of the most reliable players in the league at the moment.

Yet if pushed, I’d go for Trippier. I understand why Pochettino picks Serge Aurier having spent £23m on him, and also that Trippier has had bad days. But when he surges forward to create overlaps as he did on Wednesday, while still retaining the positional discipline to thwarts both Sanchez and Martial with ease, you see what the right-back can be: magnificent.

Daniel Storey

 


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