16 Conclusions: Manchester United 1-6 Tottenham

Date published: Sunday 4th October 2020 8:20

Manchester United cannot carry on like this. But they will. Tottenham absolutely should.

Man utd

1) While the clock accompanying the scoreline suggested there was four-fifths of the game remaining with a solitary goal separating the two sides, Tottenham’s meeting with Manchester United on Sunday was actually settled with little over a quarter of an hour played at Old Trafford.

A sustained period of territorial Tottenham dominance after Son Heung-min’s goal felt destined to end only one way: with the visitors over-comitting and being punished by a pulsating Manchester United counter-attack that exploited each and every gap in a susceptible defence. Yet as Marcus Rashford picked up the loose ball and threatened to lead the charge, Serge Aurier followed up an inch-perfect tackle in United’s own half with a calm hand signal to inform Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg he and they were in consummate control.

Rashford would leave Aurier sliding with a fake shot before hitting the post when offside a few minutes later. But the tone was set. Tottenham did not give Manchester United a moment’s breath throughout. They beat them man for man and manager for manager. This was an utter humiliation.

 

2) Tottenham were undeniably hungrier but it would be reductive to put this entirely down to a greater level of motivation. This was as much a victory of tactics as it was desire.

Jose Mourinho would have been pilloried for approaching this game with caution, setting up only to contain while hoping to snatch a chance on the break or through a set-piece. Manchester United had a weak point so obvious that it would make most video game bosses blush but it was targeted ruthlessly and almost uncomfortably at times. An energetic midfield three of Hojbjerg, Tanguy Ndombele and Moussa Sissoko pressed them into first-half oblivion while that forward trio routinely embarrassed a back five of internationals signed for more than £200m.

Tottenham tripped over their own shoelaces with the concession of a penalty within 24 seconds; they tied Manchester United in knots thereafter and strolled to a concessional victory in the second half. This was their best attacking performance under Mourinho, by his design as opposed to outside it, without perhaps their best midfielder and with two incredibly exciting loanees to add to the mix.

 

3) There is a reason the defence was referred to as ‘signed for more than £200m’ rather than ‘worth’ that figure in the previous point. Their values, both collectively and as individuals, have plummeted over a fortnight of disorganised chaos and systemic problems that have been allowed to fester by a limited coach and a club whose standards have lowered to such an inexplicable extent that it is difficult to work out whether he is seen as a useful deflective smokescreen or someone they genuinely believe is the best for this job.

The latter cannot possibly still be true. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is painfully out of his depth at this level and his cabal of supportive former teammates in the media insisting he needs that modern combination of “time” and “four or five new players to compete” are wilfully missing the point. He paired £80m and £30m centre-halves between £45m and £27m full-backs behind a £129.3m midfield and in front of an £18.9m goalkeeper and oversaw a display bereft of coordination, structure, teamwork and discipline.

Jadon Sancho would not solve that. Edinson Cavani will not solve that. And Solskjaer is far from the only problem. But anyone calling for the Glazers to sell or Ed Woodward to step down while watching Manchester United – Manchester United – equal the record for most Premier League goals conceded after three matches is kidding themselves.

 

4) Mourinho will not fool himself into thinking this was a performance without fault. Davinson Sanchez’s foul on Anthony Martial for the penalty was naive, the build to that incident was sloppy and had some of their attacks been even more crisp the Portuguese would have run out of fingers to brandish at the empty stands.

But it was striking just how little Manchester United created at home, chasing a deficit for 83 minutes. That is testament to the consummate control Tottenham exhibited throughout, emerging from the rubble and rabble of those opening stages to establish a grip on the neck of this game that they did not relinquish once. There was a unified determination – seven players completed at least two tackles – to summarily embarrass the opposition. Manchester United had one off-target shot in the second half. Tottenham sapped their energy then crushed their spirit.

 

5) Seriously, though. The defending for the first two goals was atrocious. Hojbjerg misjudged an aerial ball to give Martial and Fernandes the chance to capitalise and Sanchez’s recklessness, before Paul Pogba, Maguire, Bailly and Luke Shaw supplied a comedic tragedy of errors that practically begged for Ndombele equalise.

Both times it was a relatively simple throw-in that wreaked havoc on unsuspecting defences. How stupid a concept it remains to even consider coaching them.

 

6) But some things cannot be imprinted on a player through monotonous drills or rigorous double sessions. There are certain skills that can’t be passed down. They are innate, easy to try and teach but difficult to master in the context of a game.

Harry Kane is ridiculous. Son’s goal captured his essence as the perfect centre-forward, pulling Maguire out of position to challenge for a loose ball, drawing a mindless foul, spotting the movement of Son and playing the quick free-kick to release his teammate to score.

Manchester United could not cope with him whatsoever. It was a physical and intellectual mismatch from the first whistle to the last. They had five shots as a team; Kane managed seven alone between his assist and two other key passes. He might just suit this system as it happens.

 

7) As glorious as that moment was, it did as much to sum up the fallibility of this Manchester United defence. Maguire made the foul and did nothing to prevent the free-kick, backing away to open the space. Wan-Bissaka noticed the situation unfolding too late as he forlornly tried to block it. Bailly literally watched Son walk past him and into the area Maguire had incomprehensibly vacated.

Shaw clearing out De Gea with a slide tackle designed to stop the shot was the inedible cherry placed atop a cake comprised almost entirely of shit. Asking Maguire to be proactive in stamping out fires with his distinct lack of pace, and Bailly to cover despite an apparent absence of awareness, is tantamount to defensive suicide.

The warning signs were there against Brighton and Crystal Palace and it really is a wonder that two of the best forwards in the world took advantage of issues that haven’t been addressed.

 

8) In the half an hour from Son’s first and second goals to make it 2-1 and 4-1 respectively, Tottenham had almost six times as many shots (11 to two) and four times as many tackles (eight to two) as their hosts, who were dispossessed six times – or once every five minutes. Martial (three) was most guilty but the neglect and lack of urgency in Matic (two) and Shaw (one) showed that a fundamental panic had set in throughout the entire Manchester United side. The forwards were being rushed into every decision, the midfield froze and the defence collapsed under the inevitable subsequent pressure.

That period included Manchester United being reduced to ten men but even without Martial’s red card the disintegration was in motion. Solskjaer waited until half-time to make a change, bringing on Scott McTominay and Fred for Matic and Fernandes. Mourinho and many others would surely not have waited so long.

 

9) Lamela should obviously have been sent off if Martial’s infringement was adjudged to be worth a red. But you only win the prizes if you play the game. The shithouse’s shithouse would have done his current and former managers proud. Manchester United were so short of fight by that point they barely argued while Tottenham players tended to Lamela’s non-existent injury.

 

10) Tottenham’s third and fourth goals encapsulated the game nicely. Kane scored after helping swarm the Manchester United area from a short De Gea goal kick, forcing Bailly into a ludicrous pass that Son recycled to repay one of about 427 favours he owes the Englishman. Son himself then scored after Sissoko fired a pass into Aurier, who drove a cross through Maguire’s legs that the South Korean similarly nutmegged De Gea with.

Aurier got his goal in the second from a sensational Hojbjerg pass but even without it this was a spectacular performance from a player whose presence in the starting line-up would have elicited as much excitement from Manchester United fans as it did dread in Tottenham supporters. Competition for places has invigorated a squad that had started to feel so stale.

 

11) Sissoko was diligent ahead of him and whichever maverick picked him as the most accurate passer of the entire game can collect their winnings whenever. Eric Dier was faultless at the back and likely considered taking a second toilet break of the week. Hojbjerg as the lone defensive midfielder was close to a revelation.

Would Manchester United have any of those players if given the choice? It doesn’t feel like it. Yet each have just been instrumental in picking them apart, thriving in a system that suits them under a manager that knows how to use them. The point was the same against Palace and Brighton: pretending the only thing Manchester United need is signings rather ignores the fact they are being routinely exposed by teams full of players they would happily ignore in the transfer market.

 

12) Which is not to say they do not need investment. Alex Telles will be a valuable acquisition, if only to remove an over-reliance on Luke Shaw at left-back. His only achievement in 90 minutes was to remove his boots from treacle long enough to hack Lucas Moura down at 6-1.

Solskjaer’s reaction in the background of that shot was telling, the Norwegian throwing his hands up in the air and towards his head as he grimaced. Shaw knew that particular race had been run in this series of gruelling marathons and he even cast a glance down at Moura’s legs before taking them away from him.

It was pathetic, cynical cowardice to crown a surrender of a display. Let his post-match interview and ‘fronting up’ for the cameras kid no-one because that was honestly deplorable. His positioning for the fourth goal was not much better.

 

13) Manchester United were, of course, too big a club to sign a player with a buy-back clause included. They had trailed Sergio Reguilon and, by all accounts, would have acted on their interest had Real Madrid not inserted an option to essentially loan him back if they so wished. Tottenham had no such delusions of grandeur, identifying the need for a left-back and accepting the potential future consequences.

He was great fun in midweek and this was no different from someone who has added another dimension to Tottenham’s attacks on the left. Even if Reguilon does only stay for a couple of years before Real come calling once more, it will have been a worthwhile move.

 

14) It was probably Kane or Son, perhaps even Hojbjerg, but Ndombele deserves a mention for man of the match. He has emerged from the Mourinho midfield testing ground as an incredibly exciting option in the centre.

The difference between him playing with and without confidence is evident. Not since late February had Ndombele completed an hour in the Premier League but he more than earned his applause from the bench upon his removal 20 minutes before the end. Not all of it has been intended but Mourinho, who has navigated eight games in 21 days with only one genuine setback, seems to have cracked the code.

 

15) Pogba was awful. Fernandes was atrocious. Mason Greenwood had a couple of shots to wake Hugo Lloris from his slumber in the first half but was largely anonymous. Martial was dreadful. It is genuinely difficult to recall a single thing Rashford did in an hour and a half.

One of those players struggling could be easily explained but each failing so starkly speaks to a deeply-ingrained problem in the collective. This team has no alternative plan, no different approach, when counter-attacking is removed from the equation and they can’t get close enough to the penalty area to encourage a foul.

The single most damning aspect of the entire performance was that McTominay completed the most dribbles. It took a midfielder nowhere near the requisite quality of a side that boasts about trophy aspirations for them to show even a semblance of initiative and drive. That is embarrassing for the players and the manager.

 

16) So what do Manchester United do now? They have invested so much time and money into the Solskjaer project that there will be a general reluctance to end it. This is a club so obsessed with image that their reticence to actually bid for Sancho has been explained as a fear of how it would be received; a brand so occupied with perception and marketing that legitimate grievances aired by Gary Neville were dismissed as ‘inflammatory and disturbing’ this weekend.

A typical team would cut their losses but one fuelled by nostalgia and gripped by an identity crisis brought on by its own poor choices will resist that temptation. And Solskjaer will not resign. They are locked in an unsuitable relationship for the foreseeable future.

Manchester United know they will always be there or thereabouts. They have a floor that they won’t crash through even at their worst; the disaster that was David Moyes took them to seventh and Mourinho was sacked with them in sixth. That breeds complacency and removes the incentive to provoke genuine change, instead creating a culture where they can lurch from one managerial ethos to the next without anything ever actually being any different.

This is no longer a serious football club. They cannot sell players anywhere near as efficiently as their peers. They cannot bully teams into letting them hoard the biggest talents. They cannot forget this idea that progress is only attainable through signings. They cannot continue with their latest failure of a coaching appointment but will because they are scared of how it will look and because Mauricio Pochettino won’t talk about corners at the Nou Camp that are older than much of this squad. This must be a Manchester United impostor because the real thing would not accept being run by a coach who would look out of place at Fulham. Yet here we are.

Matt Stead

 

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