16 Conclusions: Manchester United 0-3 Tottenham

Date published: Monday 27th August 2018 10:08

The wrong tactics, the wrong reaction, the wrong result. The wrong man?

1) There were 30 minutes remaining at Old Trafford, and Manchester United were losing 2-0. An hour played, a game stretching out of reach but still visible. A desperate situation to salvage and a record to avoid: Manchester United had never lost 2-0 at home in the Premier League.

Jose Mourinho had one substitution remaining, one last throw of the dice to try and alter the course of the game as he had done so many times through his years at Porto, Chelsea, Inter, Real Madrid and in Manchester

‘This is Manchester United,’ away fans at Old Trafford perennially think. ‘They always come back strong.’ ‘This is Mourinho,’ opposition supporters perennially think. ‘He always demands more.’

Mourinho looked toward the bench for his game-changer, and saw Marcus Rashford. Rashford is a local boy, a young talent desperate for minutes and desperate to help out Manchester United, his beloved Manchester United. Mourinho did not see either Juan Mata or Anthony Martial, because neither had made Manchester United’s matchday squad. They were the scapegoats from the defeat to Brighton, along with others. There is always company to be found on Mourinho’s naughty step.

Two minutes later, Marouane Fellaini stepped onto the Old Trafford turf. Fellaini, a central midfielder/battering ram/Plan C/tired joke. Fellaini, a man who played a game of contract cat-and-mouse with Manchester United, and somehow won after holding the club to ransom. Fellaini, a perfectly serviceable footballer, but more desperate measure than game-changer.

In a time of dire need and with one big play left, Mourinho turned to Fellaini. If we are witnessing the slow end of his time at Manchester United, this deserves to be the epitaph and the message scrawled all over his tarnished reputation.

At least something changed: Manchester United have still never lost 2-0 at home in the Premier League. That record remains intact.

 

2) This dreadful defeat – if not quite entirely dismal performance – is most harmful to Mourinho’s reputation because of the identity and philosophy of his opposite number. As Mauricio Pochettino strode onto the pitch, wearing all black as if attending Mourinho’s own wake, he must have a felt a buzz. He belongs on this stage.

Pochettino took over a team in a mess, has made a profit on transfers and created a team and squad with infinitely more cohesion than Mourinho has managed. His players have bought into his vision and enjoy playing the style of football he preaches. Young players see Tottenham as the perfect home.

While Mourinho has used his media friends to leak his unhappiness at the club’s lack of transfers following the arrival of only two first-team players, Pochettino shrugged, smiled and preached the virtues of keeping the plug in the bath rather than pouring in more and more hot water.

Mourinho has valid excuses for not keeping pace with Manchester City this or last season, although he has spent amply on his squad. But he has no answer against Pochettino, who was handed no magic beans and has grown his own beanstalk. The inevitable retorts of ‘show us his trophies’ spectacularly miss the point. Pochettino made something out of little; Mourinho has barely made the same out of an awful lot more.

In the final 15 minutes at Old Trafford, Mourinho’s reputation splintered as every red seat in the stadium emptied. They did not leave in enthralled hordes, beery voices celebrating glorious victory, but in the dismal trickle  of “come on Steve, I’ve had enough; let’s go”.

Manchester United’s manager may yet recover from this funk – and we are only three matches into the new season – but nobody can now deny that United are in relative crisis. Wins are the only medicine.

 

3) To put the defeat into context:

– This was only the seventh time in Premier League history that Manchester United have lost by three goals or more at home.

– This was the first time in 49 years that Manchester United have conceded seven or more goals in their first three league games.

– This was the first time that Tottenham have won by more than a one-goal margin at Old Trafford since 1989.

– This was the first time Manchester United have conceded three or more goals in consecutive league games since January 2012.

 

4) It was always likely that Manchester United’s insipid defeat to Brighton would prompt certain individuals to be thrown to the side by an angry manager, but few would have expected such a damning indictment as this. In total, Mourinho made six changes to his starting line-up.

Mata, Andreas Pereira and Martial were the three players substituted at the Amex Stadium, and none of those three even made the squad against Tottenham. While Martial’s relationship is clearly frosty after the events of this summer and Mata is experienced enough to roll with the punches, you do have to feel some sympathy for Pereira. Having helped out his manager at a time of need in a slightly unfamiliar position, he was bombed out.

But the most devastating blow has surely been handed to Eric Bailly, who started United’s first two matches of the season and was also left out of the matchday squad in favour of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones. With Victor Lindelof also omitted from the starting XI, both central defenders that Mourinho has bought during his tenure are now out of the team.

It’s episodes like these that mean the criticism of Ed Woodward for not signing more defenders must be qualified slightly. Mourinho can reasonably argue that he was not backed as much as he expected over the summer, but at what point are his club justified in asking him to improve what he has as well as buying?

The three players who have improved noticeably under Mourinho’s stewardship – Jesse Lingard, Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia – were all at the club when Mourinho arrived. His signings have generally not worked out well.

 

5) Although Sky Sports initially placed Nemanja Matic in central midfield, as you might expect, it then became fairly common knowledge that Mourinho would be using the Serbian in a central defensive role, switching the system to a back three. MUTV leaked as much.

The idea was that United had looked defensively weak, and so the added presence at the back would make them more solid. But Matic would play a multi-purpose role, stepping up out of midfield with the ball and acting as a bridge between defence and midfield. The accusation is that his recycling of the ball is too slow, hampering Manchester United’s counter attacks.

Could this be a solution? Matic playing in the back three makes it more likely that he would immediately pass the ball to Ander Herrera or Paul Pogba rather than dwelling on it – Tottenham’s press simply wouldn’t give him the time.

And then Manchester United started the game with Matic playing in midfield and Herrera playing in the back three and everyone frowned in unison. Sometimes a surprise can work simply because it catches the opposition off guard. Sometimes the opposition eventually make you look foolish.

 

6) There were surprises in the Tottenham team too, but a wave of familiarity after a summer of quiet at White Hart Lane/Wembley/somewhere in north London. Danny Rose, Toby Alderweireld and Mousa Dembele all looked likely to leave Spurs at various points over the last three months, but all were either persuaded or told to stay.

This was the first Premier League game that Tottenham’s wantaway summer trio have started together since January 31, 2017. With a familiar back five and Dembele and Eric Dier in midfield behind Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli and Harry Kane, this was very Tottenham Hotspur 2015/16.

That’s no bad thing. With the mood increasingly governed by transfer activity, Tottenham stand for stability. Of their 11 most regular players in 2015/16, nine started at Old Trafford. And for all the concern amongst supporters about the lack of transfers, Alderweireld, Rose, Lucas Moura and Harry Winks all fit the ‘like a new signing’ cliche perfectly.

 

7) There is no perfect measurement for what makes a good or bad game, and games with low and high quality can both be entertaining or dull. But we can be sure that the first half at Old Trafford was of pitiful quality for a match between two top-six teams.

When I was a teenager, our manager made us play matches in training where we were banned from making any noise. You could not warn a teammate that he had time on the ball or had a man on him, and you could not call for a pass. The drill was supposed to teach us the importance of communication in match scenarios, and it worked. We were impotent without communication.

That’s what the first half at Old Trafford felt like. United were the better team, but even they suffered from a lack of joined-up thinking while Tottenham players either rushed clearances or dallied on the ball in attacking areas and were robbed of possession. Chances were snatched, passes misplaced and tackles mistimed. The game was played at a frantic pace, but in the same way a game of playground football is disorganised chaos.

 

8) The three exceptions to that rule were Moura – who dropped deep and drove at Manchester United’s defence – Jesse Lingard and Luke Shaw. Lingard played a support striker role behind Romelu Lukaku and immediately stopped Lukaku from becoming so isolated. Manchester United have missed him.

Shaw was the best player of the half, far better than the clumsy Rose on Tottenham’s left flank. He twice intercepted dangerous passes and surged forward on his first start against a top-six team since 2016.

Shaw was excellent against Leicester City on the opening night of the season, but he would be the big winner of a more permanent switch to a three-man central defence. Playing with wing-backs makes it more useful to have a natural left-footer on the left, who can overlap and cross the ball without coming back onto his right foot and slowing down play. Keep this up, and Shaw’s days at Old Trafford may not be numbered.

 

9) As part of his post-match meltdown, Mourinho concluded that Manchester United could have been three goals clear at half-time. That’s a ludicrous exaggeration, but they certainly should have taken the lead when Lukaku missed an open goal.

The lack of confidence that footballers have with their weaker foot is one of the most frustrating aspects of the game. Having rounded Hugo Lloris, every player of Lukaku’s quality must be good enough to roll the ball into the net with either foot. And if they aren’t then they should practise doing it every day until they are. These are the moments that can change games.

 

10) Tottenham should have had a first-half penalty, and I’m struggling to see why Craig Pawson did not penalise Jones for his shove on Moura. You can talk about VAR until you are blue in the face – and people will – but Pawson had the perfect view to see the offence and Jones clearly made no attempt to play the ball.

Moreover, Jones immediately looked towards the referee having committed the foul, a guilty man hardwired into checking whether anybody had witnessed his mistake. Jones has a reputation for clumsiness. This time, he got away with it.

 

11) The other incident of note in the first half was the yellow card awarded to Moura, purely because the laws create a whacking great grey area here.

We are told that committing ‘serious foul play’ should result in a red card, and that included in serious foul play is ‘a tackle or challenge that endangers the safety of an opponent or uses excessive force or brutality must be sanctioned as serious foul play’.

The ‘or’ in that sentence suggests that any tackle that endangers an opponent’s safety can be reasonably followed by a red card, and Moura lifting his foot high enough to connect with Jones’ head certainly threatened to cause Jones serious injury.

However, this seems a rule for which referees are allowed to use a modicum of common sense, and rightly so. As long as a player makes some connection with the ball then we can conclude that they had a fair chance of playing it rather than man. In that scenario, yellow card suffices.

 

 

12) Manchester United’s three-man central defensive system might well be the answer to the club’s problems, but it lasted a mere 54 minutes on its debut. For all United’s promise in the first half, they were undone by mistakes again. It is becoming a habit that Mourinho’s team cannot shake, to the extent that the manager cannot continue to blame his players. Coach them to be better.

The first goal was a simple case of poor marking. Jones has defended enough corners and has faced Harry Kane in matches and England training enough times to know that he is a fabulous header of the ball. Kane still didn’t look fully fit after his World Cup injury, but give him a headed chance 12 yards from goal and he can make you look very foolish.

As the corner is delivered, Jones has Kane in his sights. The striker does make a clever run, edging backwards rather than forward to meet a near-post delivery, but it should hardly be enough to bamboozle an international central defender.

Instead of tracking Kane, Jones tries to crane his neck back to watch the ball but fails to move his feet. Kane is left with a difficult chance, but not an impossible one. His header was magnificent.

 

13) And then bad went to worse, as feels inevitable as the dark clouds continue to gather over Old Trafford. Ultimately, Mourinho’s surprise three-man system was only going to work if players unused to the system and unused to communicating with each other were able to do both effectively. For Tottenham’s second goal, they were embarrassed and the dangers of an unfamiliar strategy laid bare.

You can make your own mind up on who was to blame. Personally I think that Herrera was badly out of position rather than Smalling and Jones, playing Eriksen onside in ten yards of space and allowing him to cross for the excellent Moura. Herrera was marking Kane, that much is true, but then he didn’t need to. His responsibility was to keep the defensive line.

In central midfield, Herrera is used to staying as tight as possible to his opponent, often deployed in a man-marking role against the opposition’s most creative player. But playing in defence requires different thinking according to the situation. Herrera read it wrong, but it’s hardly his fault. The guilty party immediately substituted him.

 

14) Some readers will cry foul that football is football and everything else is not football, but I was disappointed to see Lloris named as Tottenham’s captain three days after his arrest for drink-driving.

The issue of footballers as role models is a thorny one, with no right answers. It would have been surprising if Pochettino had dropped Lloris from the team and played Michel Vorm, simply because they were facing such a tough opponent. If that is making a moral judgement based on sporting logic – which is murky – then that’s simply the reality. Had Tottenham been playing Cardiff at Wembley, Vorm would have had more chance of starting.

But stripping Lloris of the captaincy and handing it to Kane would have punished the goalkeeper adequately while also sending a message to his teammates that off-field indiscipline will not be tolerated. Parents could have explained to their children that Lloris had done something naughty and that he was very sorry but that we have to face consequences for our actions.

It would also not have necessarily changed the reality of Spurs’ on-field leadership. Kane would have worn the armband while Lloris marshalled the defence, as now. Lloris is hardly a heart-on-sleeve, chest-beating leader.

Instead, the message has been implicitly sent that the club have not taken the issue seriously. Lloris will presumably be fined and reminded of his responsibilities, but this was a crime of arrogance and ignorance. It shouldn’t matter how good you are at football, actions must have consequences.

 

15) But the final Tottenham words must be positive, and must go to Moura. In January I expressed surprise that Spurs had been able to sign a 25-year-old Brazilian with 46 international caps who had been a regular st Paris Saint-Germain for only £25m. In the current climate, that seemed a bargain.

Moura did struggle to settle in England, but Tottenham is a close-knit squad and recent history shows that players struggle to break into it easily. Tottenham have more transfer failures than successes over the last three years.

Moura could easily have pushed for a move this summer. But he stayed, and with Heung-Min Son at the Asian Games, Tottenham are far the better for it. This was the player that wowed too infrequently in France, but without the luxury of far inferior opponents. More than any other player on the pitch, he dragged Tottenham on and lasted the full 90 minutes. The Pochettino effect?

 

16) ”From the strategic point of view and from the tactical point of view we haven’t lost,” said Mourinho after the game, part-Brendan Rodgers and part-David Icke in its delirious optimism. But he followed that with an even stranger assessment.

“All our fans don’t read papers, all our fans don’t watch television,” Mourinho said, before holding up three fingers as he left the press conference to indicate the number of Premier League titles he has won. They really do, Jose.

There are two explanations for this nonsense:
– Mourinho is having to rely upon bolder and bolder attempts to deflect attention away from miserable results, and so is genuinely trying to sound unhinged.

If the headlines on the back pages on Tuesday are ‘We didn’t lose’ then he will have won his battle, but it seems unlikely. Mourinho could have put two pencils up his nose and shouted “wibble” and the headlines would still focus on the humbling at home to Tottenham.

– Mourinho is falling apart. And he will not last the season.

Make your own choice, because I’ve finally made mine. Special one; special once.

Daniel Storey

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