Manchester United 1-0 Tottenham: 16 Conclusions

Date published: Monday 30th October 2017 12:40

* To borrow the opening line from the same fixture with the same scoreline last December:  ‘Jose Mourinho needed that. Manchester United needed that. Every supporter needed that. United fans would surely have preferred a free-flowing, three or four-goal victory, a swaggering win over a team with top-four aspirations, but Mourinho needed to show that his party trick was not broken.’

It matters not that the intervening 11 months have seen Tottenham finish 17 points ahead of Manchester United in the Premier League; when it comes down to this fixture, it’s still “lads, it’s Tottenham”. Lads, it’s Tottenham who have now won just one of their 16 away games against top-six opposition under Mauricio Pochettino. Lads, it’s Tottenham who have triumphed at Old Trafford under only two managers (Tim Sherwood and Andre Villas-Boas) in the last 28 years. Lads, it’s Tottenham who had more possession, more shots on target and a greater pass completion rate but still somehow lost.

 

* Manchester United are now unbeaten in 37 games at Old Trafford. Regardless of what anybody believes, says or writes about style and the ‘proper’ way to play football, that is a phenomenal record. If you a) feel and b) literally are unbeatable at home, it’s almost harder not to win trophies.

The recurring theme of the post-Ferguson era is that Old Trafford has lost its fear factor. United probably need to utterly destroy credible opposition to truly restore total intimidation, but there should again be real trepidation on board every team bus that draws into the stadium car park. That bodes well for the latter stages of the Champions League when nobody will be counting shots on target if they beat PSG or Real Madrid 1-0. This stadium may no longer suit the moniker of Theatre of Dreams, but when the opposition are armed, it’s far better to be defending a fortress than a theatre.

 

* It would be easy to criticise United on the grounds that they produced only three shots on target at home, but were statistics to count ‘moments of real danger’, the numbers would look far different: the Romelu Lukaku ball across the box in the opening minutes, the Henrikh Mkhitaryan shot spilled by Hugo Lloris, the Mkhitaryan pull-back deflected past the Belgian striker, the Lukaku chance from the Nemanja Matic pass, the header that beat Hugo Lloris but hit the upright.

The attacking intent was by no means sustained, and United certainly lack the fluidity of a Manchester City or even Arsenal in full flow, but there were five or six moments of real danger for a usually steadfast Tottenham defence. Their failure to breach Tottenham until the 81st minute was not because they did not try to win the game but because they simply did not play particularly well. And neither did Tottenham.

 

* “Try to win but with one eye on the thief.” That is Jose Mourinho’s interpretation of the tactics at Old Trafford and it is perfect. The difference between Manchester United and Tottenham was ultimately that United had a far more dangerous pair of burglars in Lukaku and Anthony Martial, and Tottenham uncharacteristically left the door open. Not just open but with a cooked dinner on the table and a pile of instructions on how to work all the expensive electronic equipment.

Gary Neville chose to lay all the blame firmly at the feet of Jan Vertonghen for allowing Martial to run past him, but this is a three-man back line that should shoulder that blame equally – Toby Alderweireld for not challenging Lukaku, Dier for getting the wrong side of Martial and Vertonghen for that lapse in concentration seconds before. It is astonishing those three particular players should simultaneously lose their heads (or headers) into the last ten minutes of such a massive game. Or is it? After all, this is a Tottenham side developing a reputation for not quite getting over the line.

 

* Mourinho attracted plenty of opprobrium for choosing to once again take off Marcus Rashford and bring on Martial, but his decision was absolutely vindicated. Did anybody really expect him to take off one of his central midfielders? Or did people really think that taking off Lukaku was the answer? That the Belgian then twice went close to scoring – when Matic and Jesse Lingard delivered entirely different but entirely the right balls – would have already justified the decision even if he had not linked with Martial for the only goal of the game.

It is really easy to criticise Lukaku in games such as these and the pundits find it particularly easy, telling Lukaku he has to “make something happen”. But he is now playing for Manchester United, one of the biggest clubs in world football; what are the midfielders paid for if not to help him make something happen? He is not sodding Didier Drogba and he does not enjoy a 30-yard ball fired into his chest. In fact, we are struggling to think of anybody else who does.

 

* The bare statistics may point to some kind of smash and grab, but in reality these are two very evenly matched teams who – without Paul Pogba and Harry Kane at least – are rather better defensively than offensively. The sensible money was always on 1-0 and the really sensible money was on 1-0 to United. Their home invincibility, Tottenham’s away problem in big games and Mauricio Pochettino’s poor record against Mourinho all combined to make a Spurs victory the unlikeliest outcome.

And then there was the mistake made by Pochettino in midweek. Privately sack off the Carabao Cup, by all means, but do not publicly admit that a game is not really important. It sends a message to the players that it is really difficult to un-send. If we criticise Mourinho for his tactics against Liverpool and believe they had a knock-on effect at Huddersfield, we have to dole out criticism to Pochettino too. It was a momentum-killing cock-up.

 

* That it took Tottenham 77 minutes to create their only clear-cut chance of the game reveals just how difficult they found it to turn any dominance of the ball into real danger. The absence of Harry Kane is the obvious explanation but that is a tad simplistic; the knock-on effects of his absence should not be underestimated.

With Christian Eriksen forced deeper by Dele Alli and Son Heung-Min playing as a nominal front pairing, the majority of the Dane’s touches were too far from the United goal to have an impact. It is telling that he finally created that chance for Alli when a double substitution had changed the Tottenham shape.

Tottenham had the numbers advantage in midfield but that is not always a good thing; the average positions of seven of their players were within 20 yards of the half-way line. Without a focal point up front, they kept themselves at arm’s length.

 

* The chance when it came fell to Deli Alli, timing his run – as he so often does – to perfection. It was one of those games when he had again been wasteful and infuriating, so it would have been entirely in character to then emerge the goalscoring hero, but he put the chance wide. He had failed at the one skill that had not deserted him this season.

There was a point when the commentator said “Alli…being too clever there” after a flick that did not come off, but it feels like this side of his game is routinely ignored by pundits desperate for him to be absolutely brilliant. Too many times attacking moves break down because Alli is playing as if trying to fill a highlights reel rather than win a football match. Against Manchester United, he lost the ball five times purely because of a poor touch.

 

* And then there was the over-the-top praise from Neville and co for him not headbutting Ashley Young. How low is the bar when a player gets involved in a teammate’s argument, squares up to a fellow professional, resists the urge to nut him, and we give him a big pat on the back and praise his growing maturity?

 

* A word here for Young, who was again excellent for Manchester United. If ever there was a player born to play as a wing-back it is Young, who is diligent, determined but also dangerous going forward. In the opening ten minutes when United started like a locomotive, he was brilliant – first releasing Lukaku with a killer ball with the outside of his foot and then leaving Serge Aurier kicking thin air with a feint and thrust.

And then when United were forced on the back foot, he largely shackled Alli, Aurier, Moussa Sissoko and whoever else ventured out to Tottenham’s left wing. There is rather a lot to be said for simply being a very good Premier League player when the world is losing its nut over players a decade younger.

 

* In that opening ten minutes, it looked like Mourinho had solved the problem of Lukaku’s isolation against Liverpool by pushing Rashford alongside or more often beyond him. With Young playing high on the left and Mkhitaryan in behind, United looked like a devastating attacking force. Tottenham looked visibly rattled.

But then everybody remembered that this was a clash between two big sides and reverted to the norm of general boredom. Tottenham started to gain some possession, United dropped off and everybody agreed to largely play in the 20 yards either side of the half-way line. We cried.

The result of that midfield stagnation was that Lukaku and Rashford were both isolated, with that pair having fewer touches of the ball in the first half than anybody else on the pitch. Oddly enough, nobody said that Rashford needed to make things happen.

 

* By half-time, Pochettino was the happier manager despite a lack of clear-cut chances (and no, shooting from 35 yards does not count as a clear-cut chance). Although he is not a manager who would admit to being content with a 0-0 draw, a 0-0 draw at Old Trafford without Harry Kane would clearly not be a disaster. If you are fighting with one arm tied behind your back, emerging with the rest of your body intact is some feat.

The onus was on United to find another gear and they found it in the opening ten minutes of the second half, when they seemed to collectively remember that they were playing a football match they really needed to win. In the space of a minute, Mkhitaryan briefly looked like the Mkhitaryan of August and was desperately unlucky not to emerge with at least an assist. So of course he was replaced by Jesse Lingard ten minutes later. Such was Lingard’s impact, I honestly did not realise he was playing for a full 15 minutes.

 

* Had Tottenham held on for the 0-0 draw, a great deal of praise would have been heaped upon Dier for some truly excellent defending. So many doubts still exist about Dier as a defensive midfielder, but in a three-man central defence with Alderweireld and Vertonghen he is (almost) imperious. Particular credit goes to Dier for keeping pace with the rapid Rashford on one counter-attack.

But would Davinson Sanchez have allowed Martial to score that winner? It was a poor, poor error from Dier, who had been otherwise excellent. In the space of a few minutes, the miss of Alli and the mistake of Dier had turned a potential 1-0 win into a 1-0 defeat.

 

* The coverage of football is undoubtedly influenced by the result and anybody who claims to write purely about football without being influenced by football results is a liar. Had this game ended 0-0 then Mourinho would have been criticised, by this site and beyond. So perversely, if Tottenham had defended properly, Mourinho would have been criticised. But he would not have been slated because this was not a United side that had no attacking intention (as per the Liverpool game) nor a United side that had no bite (as per the Huddersfield game); this was just a United side that was merely lacking in sustained quality.

“I like a lot of performances independent of the result,” said Mourinho. “If the result is 0-0 or 1-1 my feelings with the players and the team would be the same because they gave absolutely everything, every ball was like the most important ball of their career. The concentration and focus was there and we cannot forget the quality of the team we were playing against.”

Indeed.

 

*  The key word for Pochettino after the game was ‘control’ but the problem with seeking to control rather than dominate a match is that you are vulnerable to seeing your one real mistake punished. Did Tottenham concentrate a little too much on containment because they had no Harry Kane? Or did the weight of history lie too heavy and lead them to be too cautious? It certainly felt like Tottenham were missing dynamism, with everything feeling just a little too slow and safe.

Pochettino said: “The game was under control, we didn’t concede many chances, only a short period in the second half when we concede a few actions. It was always under control.”

Until it wasn’t. That’s the problem.

 

* There have been many suggestions this and every other week that this site is somehow collectively anti-Manchester United and pro-Tottenham. Sorry but no. We are pro-football and we are not disappointed that United won this match; we are disappointed that it wasn’t an awful lot of fun.

 

Sarah Winterburn

 

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