* The fear was that the spectacle would not match the occasion. The Premier League does do a fine line in huge builds with underwhelming pay-offs. All too often, the hype is far grander than the event.
We needn’t have worried. Tottenham’s final game at White Hart Lane was a delight to watch. The fans provided a cacophony of noise as the backdrop to a famous home victory. This was yet another memory to add to a cherished collection in north London.
Many an excellent team has stepped through the tunnel at this stadium and dominated the opposition over the years. The sides of champions, such as Manchester United, Arsenal or Chelsea, and European heavyweights, Real Madrid and Inter Milan among them.
Tottenham have all too often been cast as the losing side in these scenarios, succumbing to the game’s most famous names. But in their final fixture at this stadium, they put in a performance which showed that this team has the potential to be one of the best White Hart Lane has seen in recent history. To beat Arsenal and Manchester United in their last two games in order to confirm an unbeaten home Premier League campaign is a worthy end to any story.
* Of course, this was Manchester United in name only. Jose Mourinho has made it perfectly clear that the Premier League is not his priority, and with a Europa League final to prepare for, changes were in the offing.
That does not excuse the performance. United were listless and utterly dominated by Tottenham, and this was a starting XI featuring players with vast Premier League and international experience. They managed two shots on target. The scoreline suggests a close match; this was anything but.
With Southampton to come on Wednesday, followed by a home game against Crystal Palace next Sunday, Mourinho has to toe a difficult line. To rest players when the stakes are so high is understandable, but United risk heading into the Europa League final with absolutely no momentum. They have now won just one of their last six games. Ajax have no reason to be quaking in their boots.
* One of the consequences of Mourinho naming ‘weakened’ starting XIs – he made eight changes here – is that the players who come into the side have a chance to change the manager’s mind. If a player performs excellently and responds to the challenge, they will be rewarded with more opportunities.
That the only player who played at a level approaching their best was Eric Bailly speaks volumes. The Ivorian is suspended for the Europa League final through his own naivety, but was the club’s best performer even when played out of position.
That United’s defence looked so uncertain with him shifted out to the right is alarming. Chris Smalling and Phil Jones are the supposed seasoned first-team players, and Bailly, at 23, in his first full Premier League season and still with fewer than 100 career league appearances, is the inexperienced youth. Yet no player made more tackles (4) and provided more resistance to the Tottenham tidal wave.
Mourinho broke the world transfer record, signed one of the finest players in football on a free transfer and purchased one of the Bundesliga’s best in his first summer window. His most important and impressive signing, on this season’s evidence at least, might have been Bailly.
* Back to the previous point, where Mourinho’s changes afforded fringe players a chance to prove they could be trusted in the Europa League final. Smalling, Jones, Daley Blind, Michael Carrick, Jesse Lingard, Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata all appeared on a sliding scale of performances marked from ‘terrible’ to ‘ineffective’. It is fair to criticise Mourinho’s use and construction of this squad, but his players really do have to show much, much more in the future.
* Tottenham would have been forgiven for exhibiting nerves on their big day, but save for a few misplaced passes, this was a start as confident as they have had this season. They spread the ball around effortlessly as United chased shadows.
Five minutes in, the hosts won a corner. Christian Eriksen played it short to Ben Davies, whose delivery found Victor Wanyama. He powered the header home, and an already rocking White Hart Lane must surely have registered on the Richter scale.
Cesc Fabregas has carved out an unlikely niche as the Premier League’s best reserve player this season, but Davies has his own case He has slotted seamlessly into this starting XI in the absence of the brilliant Danny Rose, and his delivery for Wanyama’s header was exceptional. He is the consummate professional, a squad player who is happy to perform when called upon. Every manager would love a Ben Davies.
* “Of course you want to play. You want to play every game. Sometimes that’s football and I’ve had to keep working and try to take my chances.”
If Wayne Rooney does not leave Manchester United in the summer, Mourinho has wasted a full season of ushering the club captain slowly and quietly towards the exit door. Rooney did indeed “take his chance”, converting Anthony Martial’s centre via a Jan Vertonghen deflection, but that surely is not enough to salvage his Old Trafford career.
It might seem curmudgeonly to criticise Rooney for his performance in a game where he scored – what are strikers there for, after all? – but watching the 31-year-old play, it is clear to see he is more of a hindrance than a help.
His attempt at man-marking Wanyama for the opening goal after just five minutes was laughable, and he hardly improved from there. A dominant display from a young, vibrant Tottenham exposed this veteran as no longer good enough, were evidence of the already irrefutable ever needed.
What is most striking is that Mourinho has given the 31-year-old ample opportunity to prove his worth. Rooney has played marginally fewer minutes in all competitions than Martial, and more than Lingard. Instead of tying the noose around Rooney’s neck himself, Mourinho has handed it over so he can do the honours. It is the only feat he has accomplished convincingly all season.
* It would be unfair to concentrate only on Rooney, for he was not the only individual in United colours playing for his future at the club. Carrick’s deal at Old Trafford expires this summer, and the evidence locker arguing in favour of his stay remains bare.
Some have pointed to the fact that the midfielder started alongside Axel Tuanzebe, but it was hardly as though Carrick guided the youngster through a difficult game. He was anonymous.
The single-line player ratings assessment of the 35-year-old from the Daily Mirror reads thus:
‘Would’ve got an invite to the farewell parade had he not been playing.’
It might be the most inadvertently damning opinion of the season.
* A matter of minutes after Gary Neville told Sky Sports that United were playing “through the middle with no width”, Heung-min Son proceeded to stroll through a centre as soft as a Mike Dean penalty award. David De Gea saved a weak finish, and the ball was loose. Smalling swung a weak and wild foot, and the ball was cleared about five yards to Eriksen.
The Dane’s drive flew narrowly wide, but moments later United were on the back foot again. Harry Kane sauntered down the right-hand side, powering past Jones before winning a corner. The United defender remained prone on the turf; like the child who had just been embarrassed in a kickabout by his father, who had ‘had enough messing about’.
In those brief first-half minutes, we witnessed both United’s central defenders being dominated by hungrier, faster, stronger and – to be frank – better players. It was a theme that continued for a central-defensive partnership that is likely to be used in the Europa League final, and one we have seen, and perhaps will see again in the future, for England. That’s scary.
* Jones, while poor and surely without a future at the club, at least has the excuse of a career interrupted by injuries. Not so for Smalling, whose decline over the last season has been alarming.
The 27-year-old impressed at the heart of a Louis van Gaal side that bored opposition strikers to death, but without the comfort blanket of a midfield that will sit in front of him and a defence built to mask his flaws, he is mercifully exposed all too often.
It was his mistake that almost let Eriksen in, his sloppiness that allowed Tottenham dominance to become the norm, and his abhorrent marking which facilitated Kane’s goal. Form, as they say, is temporary; it appears as though Smalling has returned to average permanence.
* United did have their chances though, and Martial flashed an effort just wide of Lloris’ post after dragging Toby Alderweireld out of position and beating him.
Alderweireld is one of the Premier League’s finest defenders, but those who deem him to have had a better season than Jan Vertonghen ought to have watched the partnership more closely. Alderweireld is more often the subject of praise, but his teammate has been wonderful this campaign.
Improved contracts have been handed out to almost every member of this young Tottenham side this season. The most important might be the one 30-year-old Vertonghen signed in December.
* Fans of Mourinho – and there is no more prominent disciple of the Portuguese than himself – have wasted little time in pointing to this season as an argument against one of his biggest perceived flaws. This is a manager who does not trust youth, and yet Marcus Rashford has been in 60 matchday squads this campaign – the joint-highest alongside Sergio Romero.
In truth, not playing Rashford this campaign would have been tantamount to professional suicide from a manager who recognises remarkably polished talent when he sees it, regardless of age. Next season will be the bigger test of his faith in youth, as Tuanzebe looks to make the grade.
The youngster was entrusted in midfield, shadowing Eriksen. It was a task few experienced players would relish, yet he performed as well as could be expected. Eriksen played a role in both goals, but only from set-piece situations, when freed of his shackles.
It will be interesting to see whether Tuanzebe remains in the first-team picture next season. He is not as developed as Rashford was last summer, and therefore less of an obvious choice. He will require more time, belief and patience. If Mourinho really doesn’t have an aversion to youth, he will trust it when the pressure is on.
* It is a sign of utmost respect that Mourinho assigned Eriksen with his very own attack dog. Eden Hazard will tell you that it is a tactic the Portuguese reserves for only the best players.
It worked in nullifying Hazard at Old Trafford last month; it failed here. Eriksen was named Man of the Match, and received a standing ovation upon his late substitution. It was yet another fine performance from one of the finest set-piece takers in Europe.
Kane and Dele Alli score the goals and Alderweireld, Vertonghen and Hugo Lloris prevent them, but Eriksen is quickly establishing himself as this team’s most important attacking player.
* Mourinho issued an ultimatum to Martial last month. He declared that the Frenchman must “give me things that I like” or face the consequences. This was a £36.7million transfer that was threatening to turn sour.
A return of one goal and two assists in five starts since is hardly a resounding response, but such is the fallacy of trusting statistics and only statistics. He was United’s best player against Arsenal, and perhaps second only to Bailly at White Hart Lane. He he proved a constant threat to the Premier League’s best defence, and played a vital role in the second-half consolation. This campaign has been a disappointment, but there is hope yet.
* On a day of celebrations for Tottenham, one individual was little more than a recurring member of the cast. For Kyle Walker, who has been one of the main characters in their success this season, that must be a bitter pill to swallow.
It was not until the 82nd minute when Walker was introduced, Kieran Trippier limping off with an injury. This was a farewell to a famous stadium, but it also felt like goodbye to a player who looks likely to join Manchester City this summer.
Pochettino will come away from Sunday afternoon’s stroll having learned little, but the Argentinean will now be sure of one thing: Their transfer priority this summer is to sign a right-back. Trippier is an able deputy, but is no regular starter against the elite sides. If Walker does indeed leave, he must be appropriately replaced.
* One player whose head really shouldn’t be turned by Manchester overtures is Eric Dier. Reports have linked the midfielder with a £40million move to Old Trafford, but he would be strongly advised moving down from second to sixth.
Certain players thrive in certain teams and certain systems under certain managers, and it is difficult not to believe that, were Dier to take the bait from Mourinho, he would be only a fraction as effective as he is at Tottenham. If the respective performances of these two teams does not convince him of that, nothing will.
* No sooner had referee Jon Moss brought proceedings to a close had Tottenham fans invaded the pitch for one final time. Because a good old-fashioned English celebration is not complete without middle-aged men slipping over on national television.
The post-match parade – when it eventually started – respected and remembered a number of the club’s great former players, and ended with a look to the “future” – the current side.
“We are building one of Europe’s best stadiums and we will be one of Europe’s top clubs,” chairman Daniel Levy told those in attendance. It is a statement that sounds grandiose and outlandish, but if this rate of progress continues, it’s difficult to argue. The stadium move, however sad, is just one more necessary step from one of the country’s best-run clubs.