1) It had all the hallmarks of a Jose Mourinho defeat: the gall to call referee Phil Dowd “too slow”, to describe his perceived mistakes as “important Christmas gifts” for the opponent, and to refuse to respond to a leading question about officiating conspiracies with a simple: “I don’t want to answer. You know, I don’t want to be banned.”
Ever since that loss, a 5-3 humbling for Chelsea by Tottenham on New Year’s Day 2015, something changed in Mourinho. In these matches and on these occasions in particular, something has broken.
From his Chelsea return in August 2013 to that Tottenham defeat 18 months later, he managed 15 Premier League games against the traditional Big Six, winning ten and drawing five. His away record was P8 W3 D5 L0. He was unbeatable, invulnerable.
Since, Mourinho has overseen 35 games against Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham and won ten, drawn 12 and lost 13. In terms of away results, he has lost ten of 19 matches and beaten only City (2-3, April 2018) and Arsenal (1-3, December 2017).
It is a dreadful record compounded on Wednesday night by what was largely a limp performance against an endangered side in a nervous stadium, another sign of a manager either overthinking the situation or underestimating it. Still, at least Mourinho managed to coax a decent display out of United at Old Trafford.
2) And that should not go unnoticed. The aftermath will inevitably focus on Mourinho and a Tottenham team whose issues run deeper than the forlorn figure in their dugout, but United deserve more than to be rendered a mere footnote.
They were not faultless. Victor Lindelof and Harry Maguire shared a couple of moments of defensive indecision and Mason Greenwood was relatively quiet. A better side might have punished their deficiencies, much as a better side would have put Tottenham out of sight within 30 minutes. But four Premier League games unbeaten for the first time since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s December-March Midas period represents genuine and welcome progress.
3) But lads, Tottenham. That was as bad as anything produced in the final throes of Mauricio Pochettino’s reign. They were bereft of ideas and dependent on individual inspiration instead of any cleverly devised attacking plan. No teammate created a chance for another until Lucas Moura laid on Heung-min Son’s 52nd-minute effort.
It is difficult to decide what was the most worrying aspect: Tottenham’s lack of control or their lack of temperament. The former can perhaps be forgiven in the circumstances, but the latter was stark so soon into a new manager’s reign – which, it should be pointed out, was characterised as completely positive and transformative before kick-off.
The truth is that this defeat was no more down to Mourinho than the three victories that preceded it. The mystical ‘bounce’ engendered by managerial change effectively boiled down to superior finishing, a facet impossible to coach in two weeks.
The issues were obvious as early as the second date. The honeymoon is barely over and Tottenham are already showing the exact same behavioural patterns that ended their last relationship.
4) The difference was Marcus Rashford; he was sensational. The incessant debate over his actual position, and the demand from pundits for him to ‘decide what he wants to be’, always felt gratuitous. This is not a flaky partner struggling to choose what to have for tea, but a young, elite athlete shouldering the burden of carrying a historic club while being expected to continue his development without any growing pains.
This ought to settle the argument that left is right. He will not always face Serge Aurier, but Rashford treated himself to the carcass of a deer caught in the headlights. He was absolutely insatiable, opening the scoring with an effort that left Paulo Gazzaniga open to criticism, yet the pace, power and movement of the shot would have dumbfounded many a goalkeeper. The 22-year-old hit the crossbar and forced three more saves in a wondrous display.
The steely determination and cold-blooded resolve was most noticeable, and whether that was brought on by Mourinho’s return or his recent goalscoring epiphany, Solskjaer must find a way to channel and bottle it. United do not win that game with Anthony Martial in his place.
5) If there was a general theme when it came to the goalscorers, it was of confounding the critics. It is not long ago that the narrative surrounding Dele Alli was of a player with no defined place for club and country, a talent destined to fall by the wayside through a refusal to conform both on and off the pitch.
Watch his equaliser again and suggest he is not among the Premier League’s most unique, fascinating players when used properly. Most of us would have torn ligaments we weren’t aware existed even just envisioning holding off one player, angling the foot to flick a high ball over another and finishing past one of the country’s finest keepers.
Scott McTominay’s reaction was best. Jogging towards where he expected the ball to fall after De Gea saved Aurier’s effort, the Scot realised what had happened, checked himself and froze on the spot. His hands were already placed on his thighs before Alli even shot, like a resigned Vic Reeves.
If Mourinho is to garner a silver lining from this crowd, Alli’s continued improvement is surely the only candidate. He was the only Tottenham player to create more than a single chance, and the only Tottenham player to provide more than a jot of resistance.
6) Just ask Paul Merson.
That is absolutely *liquid* Merson. pic.twitter.com/B2AbYkrcYh
— Football365 (@F365) December 4, 2019
Here is your damn conclusion: football pundits specifically using the word “football” while discussing things that are quite obviously to do with football will never not be funny.
7) But back to Rashford, who has developed quite the knack for picking on people his own size.
Marcus Rashford's most favoured Premier League opponents. And he now has two goals in four games against Tottenham.
Loves the big games. pic.twitter.com/033CY8sIH6
— Football365 (@F365) December 4, 2019
His second-half penalty takes Rashford’s Premier League record against the established Big Six to 13 goals in 25 games. That is the sort of invaluable killer instinct that cannot be taught, but must not go overlooked.
8) His first goal was preventable, of course, if not by Gazzaniga saving at his near post, then perhaps by Aurier bothering to mark either the man or the space. Choosing to do neither is a level of negligence to which he has become accustomed.
Toby Alderweireld was also needlessly deep as the shot came in, but most problematic was the lack of any discernible press from midfield. It was Moussa Sissoko who accidentally deflected Fred’s pass into Davinson Sanchez’s path, with the Colombian trying and failing to swat the Jesse Lingard-sized fly buzzing around him. The ball squeezed out to Rashford who deserves credit for the shot, but he took a single touch that travelled about ten yards into the area before shooting. Sissoko reacted to the danger by clumsily shifting from first gear into neutral, while Winks was a little more forceful but no more effective.
9) It would become a theme. The Winksoko central midfield is not particularly popular, and the results it has garnered this season offer some insight. In the Premier League alone, Tottenham had lost to Newcastle and drawn with Arsenal and Watford when deploying the partnership before tonight, with the 4-0 victory over Crystal Palace an apparent aberration.
The lack of a defined defensive midfielder is painfully obvious at times. Where United had McTominay patrolling the centre and shielding an often futile defence, Sissoko left Winks constantly exposed by simultaneously covering and failing to at right-back, and the England international predictably floundered. Both should not have started a game that, thanks to substitutions, neither finished.
10) The opening half-hour made a mockery of the insistence that Solskjaer ‘can only do so much’ with this squad, that he ‘needs three or four more transfer windows’ to address their issues. The opponent – and perhaps more pertinently their manager – were incredibly accommodating but United were fast on the counter-attack, careful in possession, disciplined, organised and dangerous. This with Ashley Young at left-back, a midfield of McTominay and Fred, Lingard as a No 10 and a striker making his second career Premier League start.
Solskjaer has hardly been dealt pocket aces; this is far from an ideal hand. But he has a tendency to play it badly and fall back on flimsy excuses of cultural resets and faith in youth and fabled DNA. United looked considerably better even with just a basic tactical blueprint and a semblance of direction – even if facing Mourinho was the proverbial carrot.
They focused on targeting the full-backs and isolating them. And as bad as Aurier was, Jan Vertonghen was arguably worse if his choices in possession are taken into account. Solskjaer identified a weak point and exploited it.
Manchester City won a Premier League title with Fabian Delph at left-back. Chelsea did the same with Victor Moses on the right a year prior. It’s funny what happens when you value coaching instead of excusing ineptitude.
11) The following quarter of an hour will be used to prove that Solskjaer’s hands are tied and his input in vain, at least with the players he currently has at his disposal. From the first minute to the 35th, United had eight shots, 54.5% possession and made six tackles. Tottenham’s only shot was Harry Kane’s wayward free-kick.
Yet that was the precursor to a ten-minute capitulation that included Alli’s equaliser. United did not have a single shot from the 36th minute to half-time, conceding two, having just 43.4% possession and making a single tackle. It was a period of accidental dominance that started with an innocuous moment – McTominay’s misplaced pass under pressure from Son on the halfway line – and would not relent until Paul Tierney signalled half-time.
United, even at their most fearless, still feel like a side that can be knocked entirely off course by a slight breeze.
12) In which case, half-time could not have come sooner. It offered Solskjaer a chance to reassess the situation and his players an opportunity to regroup. Four minutes after the restart, they regained a lead they would not again squander.
Rashford was the architect once more, nutmegging Aurier and winning a penalty he himself would convert after Sissoko’s awkward non-challenge. United were in front again, but how would Tottenham respond?
With two shots in the subsequent 30 minutes, both blocked, while Dan James had two efforts saved by Gazzaniga as the game threatened to become something of a procession. Tottenham had almost two-thirds of the possession from the 50th minute to the 80th and did approximately nothing with it. It is no coincidence that two of their overall five shots on target came in the six minutes Giovani Lo Celso was so kindly afforded.
13) Tanguy Ndombele could even have been introduced earlier than the 69th minute. He offered a fresh impetus and drive from deep that had been sorely lacking, giving Tottenham a foothold that arrived slightly too late.
It is fair to say that a manager will always be able to make a more informed decision on selection issues than the layman. He sees them in training throughout the week, notices either a spark or something missing and acts upon it. Footballers are humans and thus can and will be beneficiaries or victims of numerous unpredictable variables.
But it is concerning that Mourinho professes to have spent the last 11 months studying and learning, yet the conclusion he has reached by his fourth game is that a midfield that never really worked under Pochettino is the answer. Sissoko was benched for his first two games and impressed on the right-hand side of attack – his most natural position – in his only other start under Mourinho. Why was he moved central again?
14) Can I just shock you? Lingard was great.
He created four chances while no other player made more than two. He misplaced three passes while most others suffered bouts of unfortunately timed monochromatism when trying to pick out the same colour shirt. He provided a wonderful foil for Rashford, complementing Greenwood and James in a selfless display.
The wait for a goal or an assist rolls on, but this was the sort of game that reveals the folly of such statistics to an extent. Lingard, as he often is against such teams, was vital.
15) The challenge for Solskjaer is to use this platform. The completely non-existent threat that defeat could cost him his job worked here, but Saturday brings a visit to the champions.
United can hurt Manchester City. They have the pace to toy with a troubled defence and Pep Guardiola’s side have been largely unconvincing and disjointed in attack.
The intrigue will be in their performances after that. United have a Europa League dead rubber before hosting Everton, facing Colchester in the League Cup quarter-final and visiting Watford, rounding off the year with games against Newcastle and Burnley. It is the sort of run that can build confidence and conviction in a squad that thrives off it, and this is a fine start. Conversely, a single defeat against any of those sides – AZ Alkmaar notwithstanding – knocks the wind out of already tattered sails. They went from 10th to sixth with one win here and the nature of this season makes the return journey just as likely. The week started with a gap of eight points to the Champions League places, and that has yet to be reduced.
16) The Mourinho response will be infinitely more fascinating. Maybe this is what Tottenham needed: he could not enforce drastic, sweeping changes to a side that started winning as soon as he arrived. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But this proved that Tottenham are most certainly a bit knackered.
His post-match concession that United “deserved the victory by their first half” was interesting, not least because he opted against calling the referee overweight and demanding respect. Instead, it hinted at a sort of introspection that we have hardly come to expect.
He could have done things differently. Vertonghen at left-back was a gamble that failed to pay off. Aurier at right-back might not suffice for another five months. That midfield offered familiar problems and Kane, Son and Lucas Moura were barely noticeable.
This is also guaranteed to represent Mourinho’s longest wait for a first clean sheet at any of his tenures, beating the four games he was made to wait at both Benfica and Inter Milan. The one sincere guarantee across his career has been not trophies, but defensive improvement. When Tottenham have conceded two goals or more in four consecutive games for the first time since 2007, and he has not kept a clean sheet in his last nine matches, you start to wonder if the old dog has forgotten his old tricks, never mind whether he is capable of learning new ones.