* It was after a hard-earned 0-0 draw with Manchester City that Jose Mourinho praised the “happiness”, “trust”, “belief” and “resilience” of his Manchester United players. The stalemate extended their unbeaten Premier League run to 24 games, but it was their 13th draw of the season. This was progress, but it was painfully gradual.
Twelve months on, this squad has lived up to the billing. The “happiness” was palpable upon the final whistle; the “trust” Mourinho placed in his players was evident from the starting line-up; the “belief” and “resilience” was required to topple Tottenham and reach another FA Cup final.
Before February, United had not come from behind to win against a fellow big-six team since April 2015. In the last two months, they have recovered from a deficit to beat Chelsea (2-1), Manchester City (2-3) and now Tottenham (2-1). That is belief. That is resilience. And this is Jose’s United.
* It is impossible to say whether Mauricio Pochettino’s word had an adverse effect on his squad. It is also clear what message the Tottenham manager is trying to send by constantly declaring the domestic cups to not be a priority. He wants his players to aim higher, to dream bigger, to focus on the bigger picture.
“Is it going to change our life?” asked Pochettino on Friday, dismissing the supposed “need” for Tottenham to end their trophy drought. “It will be fantastic for our fans but is not going to move the club to a different level”, he insisted, and perhaps he is right. Juande Ramos hardly built a dynasty on the foundation of League Cup success a decade ago.
But that misses the point. Tottenham are fourth in the Premier League and out of the Champions League. To still insist the FA Cup is of little importance when it was the only trophy available to them this season felt like the wrong message. Tottenham were in an FA Cup semi-final, and Pochettino chose to publicly tell his players that lifting the trophy would essentially mean nothing. You reap what you sow.
* The starting line-ups revealed plenty about how Mourinho and Pochettino viewed this game. For all the veiled threats of dropping players and giving those on the fringe a chance, the former chose Paul Pogba and Alexis Sanchez from the start. A penny for the thoughts of Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial.
Pochettino did the opposite. He kept his faith in Michel Vorm, partly because of the Dutchman’s role as cup keeper, and also possibly as a result of Hugo Lloris’ recent dip in form. He also left Toby Alderweireld on the bench once more, when perhaps his experience would have been crucial. The glare of hindsight suggests that only one manager made the right selection.
* That said, Tottenham started much brighter. Harry Kane flashed a shot at goal within 20 seconds, while Christian Eriksen pulled the strings in central midfield. The Dane was wonderful, dictating the early pace of the game with searching passes and fine movement. He was the only player to adjust to United’s new-found confidence too, maintaining his level of performance even when Mourinho’s side took hold.
Eriksen had the most touches (92) of any player, while no-one had more shots (3) or created more chances (3). This defeat will inevitably lead many to wonder how long Dele Alli and Harry Kane stay for, but that question feels more pertinent in the case of Eriksen. He has been Tottenham’s best player for months, and deserves better.
I don't care what the question is, the answer is Christian Eriksen.
— Jonas Giæver (@CheGiaevara) April 21, 2018
* Aside from Eriksen, Jan Vertonghen was the only Tottenham player to emerge with credit. The Belgian coped well with compatriot Lukaku when faced one-on-one with the striker, and looked unerringly calm in possession. That is even more impressive considering United’s tactic was to try and unsettle him – the centre-half was fouled more times than any other player (5). In Alderweireld’s absence, he has stepped up.
* Gary Lineker described it as “a half of two halves” after the first 45 minutes, and that is an apt way of putting it. United were in the ascendancy by the end – save for Eric Dier’s deflected effort hitting the post in stoppage time – but Tottenham were dominant early on.
Four of their six first-half shots came in the first 19 minutes as they made themselves comfortable in their temporary; a nervous United, by contrast, found one spot and awkwardly stuck to it. They would eventually find their feet, but not before Tottenham made their superiority count.
The attack started deep in their own half, with Davinson Sanchez’s excellent long-range pass finding the clever run of Eriksen. The Dane’s cross matched that same quality, laying the chance on a plate for Alli to score. It was not quite route one football, but it was as sublime as it was ruthless. Those two terms encapsulate Tottenham at their very best, as did the opening goal.
* Tottenham miss Alderweireld. Not necessarily for his defensive prowess – although there have undoubtedly been moments of panic and uncertainty in his enforced absence. They look more assured, more resolute, more confident when he plays, but the difference is negligible, only exposed against more effective opponents.
The one trait Spurs miss most with Alderweireld on the sidelines is his long-range passing. The Belgian provides another dimension, an alternative approach with his ability to find a teammate with a searching ball over the top, bypassing the midfield and disrupting the defence. He completed 212 accurate long balls in the Premier League last season and 238 the campaign before – 25 and 20 more than any other outfielder respectively. Sanchez has shown he has the talent to eventually fill Alderweireld’s shoes in a defensive sense, but his brilliant pass to Eriksen for the opening goal was proof that he is working on the other side of his game too.
* United were flat in the early stages. Pogba was strolling around when midfield energy was needed to counter Tottenham’s drive, while Nemanja Matic was caught in possession a number of times. The occasion seemed to get to them, and Mourinho’s gamble with his starting line-up appeared to have backfired.
As it is, Pogba is carving out something of a niche for skipping the second, third and fourth gears to go from first to fifth in a minute. Having cruised around the pitch beforehand, he sprung into life just before the half-hour mark, bullying Moussa Dembele off the ball and crossing for Sanchez to steer a phenomenal header into the far corner. The Chilean’s ability to guide the ball home was as unfathomable as United enjoying parity after their stuttering start.
That is the thing with filling a side with unique talents like Pogba and Sanchez. As infuriating as they can be, they are capable of conjuring something from nothing to change the course of a game even at their worst.
* Mourinho has spent the past few weeks trying to lessen the burden on Sanchez, telling us that his best displays will not come until next season. The danger with January signings is that there is no settling-in period, and the Chilean has struggled under the weight of immediate expectation.
Yet even the greatest showman never forgets how to put on a performance, and this was Sanchez at his hyperactive best. He hassled and harried in defence, simultaneously playing at right-back, right-wing and as a centre-forward. After a three-month long identity crisis, he has finally remembered what makes him so distinctive.
* It felt almost surreal to see Dembele so humbled, muscled off the ball and left to watch Pogba create the equaliser. This was the Belgian being prescribed a taste of his own medicine, suffering the ignominy of being robbed with a combination of grace, poise and physicality.
This was not Dembele’s finest hour – although he was actually given 78 minutes to stamp his authority on the game. By the time he was finally substituted, he had failed to make a single tackle, and was dispossessed more times than any other player (3). It is little wonder that Tottenham stalled when their engine failed to cope with the strain.
* The most curious aspect of the first half was Romelu Lukaku’s role. The Belgian regularly switched with Jesse Lingard to try and isolate Ben Davies at left-back and capitalise on the space. That meant Lingard was often the central focal point, buzzing around to keep the centre-halves occupied, while Lukaku was often deployed as a right-winger. The rotation kept Tottenham guessing, and naturally bred uncertainty.
That Lukaku impressed out wide is testament to his ability to adapt. He has often been criticised for his lack of fabled ‘footballing intelligence’, but this was a fine example of his tactical fluidity. His cross for Lingard in the 27th minute was sublime, and unfortunate to not be rewarded with an assist. His all-round game has developed wonderfully this season.
* He would end the game with an assist, although in the most fortunate circumstances possible. His poor touch from Sanchez’s cutback in the second half rolled though to Lingard, who cleverly left the ball for Ander Herrera to fire home. United were in front.
This has been a difficult season for Herrera, adjusting to a role on the bench after being named the club’s Player of the Year last campaign. This was only his 22nd start in all competitions, yet there was no rust or complacency. Similar to his display in the Manchester derby, this was mature, controlled and professional from the Spaniard. Mourinho will value the contribution of a player who buys completely into his ethos.
The most impressive part of the goal was that Herrera effectively started it. As Tottenham launched crosses into the area, United stood firm. Herrera kept his composure under pressure to head the ball back to David de Gea, which started a quick attack. A few moments later, he applied the finish past Vorm, who will know he should have done better.
For Herrera, this was the ultimate box-to-box midfielder’s goal. He has played his way back into first-team contention.
* That news may not be greeted with delight from Anthony Martial, nor Marcus Rashford. If Mourinho continues to experiment with a three-man midfield due to its recent success, that takes one more attacking position away. In the Portuguese’s search for balance, there must be sacrifices.
With Lukaku, Sanchez and Lingard forming an effective front three here, it will take something special to dislodge them. Rashford and Martial played well in midweek against Bournemouth, when Mourinho challenged his players to earn their starting places for Wembley. You could understand their frustrations when the carrot was dangled in front of them, only for the manager to eat it himself.
At least Rashford was afforded eight minutes as a substitute at the end. Martial was left on the bench throughout, and is the more expendable of the two. The challenge is to watch Sanchez’s work-rate and desire to win the ball and try and emulate it. He would be forgiven for thinking the opportunities won’t present themselves even if he did.
* That Lingard’s most telling contribution was to not touch the ball was fitting, for this was a fleeting performance from the 25-year-old. He was quite literally central to United’s plans in the first half without ever really making an impact, and struggled throughout. It should be noted that he was the victim of Tottenham’s physical approach – he was fouled as many times as the rest of the United squad combined (5).
It was the sort of performance that would have been used as an example as to why Martial and Rashford deserve more chances ahead of him. And yet the winning goal was a perfect illustration as to why Lingard should keep his place. The awareness to shield the ball and leave it for Herrera was excellent, a match-winning contribution.
* The Herrera goal seemed to sap the confidence from Tottenham. They panicked, opting not to target United’s weak spots on the wings but to funnel play through the centre. Chris Smalling and Phil Jones should not be a centre-half pairing for any club in 2018, but they are perfectly capable of repelling high crosses for minutes on end. Tottenham forgot what makes them special and unique, and so became ordinary.
Alli stated after the game that Tottenham were “tactically dominant” before Sanchez’s equaliser, and that “we can’t keep talking and saying we want to win stuff and throw it away like that”. It was refreshing honesty and a surprising insight. Few can match Tottenham tactically or physically, but there is a growing sense that there are shortcomings psychologically.
Pochettino must not be absolved of blame in that regard. He spoke of the continuing effort to instil a “winning mentality” around the club, yet he spent the majority of his pre-match press conference suggesting victory in this competition would be nothing but a day for the fans. It is a confusing message for the players.
For a club that has come on leaps and bounds since the days of “Lads, it’s Tottenham”, this felt like a stark reminder that there is a considerable amount of work to be done. Dare we say they bottled this?
* As a manager who prides himself on trophies, it would have felt disingenuous for Mourinho to preach about improvement without at least reaching a final this season. If going from sixth to second is two steps forward, how many back is ending the campaign empty-handed after Europa League and Carabao Cup success?
The Portuguese made a point of holding three fingers aloft at the end of last season to represents United’s trophy haul and underline their progress, but that would have been undermined had they bragged about finishing second when Tottenham were in the FA Cup final, Chelsea had the chance of joining them, and Liverpool and Arsenal both reached European semi-finals. This is tangible progress.