Manchester United gave a mature response after an understandably childish end to the first half. Tottenham and Jose Mourinho are not working.
1) The game’s gone. Where? Dunno. But it has. Tottenham and Manchester United played for 90 minutes plus stoppages, scoring one and three regulation association football goals respectively. Some players were very good. Others were called Sergio Reguilon. The match itself went from absorbingly boring to existentially centered around one specific moment to actually very good on balance. It is just an incredible shame that roughly two-thirds of it came after the game went, thus rendering the entire afternoon obsolete.
Thank the lord that Scott McTominay brushed Heung-min Son’s face and breathed stale life into a wider discussion that has not offered any original or engaging thought for roughly 427 years. For a second there it felt as though people might have to concentrate on and analyse the sequences of legitimately excellent play scattered throughout a contest between two knackered teams petrified of losing until one realised just how scared and vulnerable the other was. At least no-one massively overreacted to a single action in one and a half hours of now entirely meaningless football.
2) Manchester United needed that. This has quietly and remarkably equalled their longest winning run in the Premier League since January 2019, secured on a weekend in which the teams directly above and beneath them dropped points. The gap to Manchester City is probably too wide to contemplate a late title challenge – although that conversation not being patently laughable in mid-April is a sign of tangible progress – and Leicester might have been too far behind to catch them in any event. Yet it speaks to the resolve of this team to go a goal down away from home in those circumstances before recovering to properly solidify their current position while allowing for more focus on their European exploits. After an understandably childish reaction to adversity and shithousery in the first half, that second period was an incredibly mature response from a team that is growing up.
3) Tottenham had been posed a slightly different challenge by the results achieved by the teams around them. Everton face Brighton on Monday but their presence continues to lurk ahead of Spurs’ trip to Goodison Park next week. Aside from that, the two sides below the Toffees and three teams immediately above them were all victorious as that final Champions League qualification place moved further out of reach. Victory would have put them back level on points with Liverpool but as it is, defeat leaves them closer to Leeds in tenth than Chelsea in fifth and under no illusions as to where their momentum is likelier to take them.
The sheer amount of pressure placed on that League Cup final against Manchester City in a fortnight is preposterous. Win that and Jose Mourinho can excuse failure in every other competition Tottenham have entered. Lose and Daniel Levy might start to doubt his negotiation skills after selling his soul to the devil for a trip to Wembley secured through a bye, a penalty shoot-out and wins over Championship opposition. Yet whether they end their trophy drought or not, it is probably time for him to join everyone else in accepting that this really isn’t working. When they needed a plan in the second half the manager was busy plotting the direction of his post-match interview.
4) Mourinho will and presumably already has publicly harangued his squad for not being Maniche or Paulo Ferreira or anyone else who played for Porto almost two decades ago. In some instances he will have something vaguely resembling a point because a couple of those performances were rotten – although there was no particularly offensive individual mistake, the sort which he tends to hang his criticisms on. The worst was probably his own: replacing Giovani Lo Celso for Moussa Sissoko. Or playing Eric Dier.
This has happened too many times for the manager to pretend he can be absolved of blame. When you are leading 1-0 at half-time in your own stadium and the overriding belief remains that you are going to lose, the problem is endemic and systemic. Tottenham even had the immeasurable advantage of scoring after the opponent had a goal disallowed which, whether the decision was right or not, has an indelible impact on the collective emotional state of both teams. But this was a side that had dropped more points from winning positions than all but three teams, leading against a side that had won more points from losing positions than two teams have overall. It was a predictable surrender orchestrated by an increasingly formulaic manager.
5) The comeback itself was no shock; the feeble nature of it was startling. Tottenham have squandered leads before in every conceivable manner but this was an alarming level of cowardice. In the 40 minutes up to and including Son’s opening goal they had three shots to one and 56.9% possession with an 84% pass-success rate. In the 17 subsequent minutes up to and including Fred’s equaliser they had one shot (off-target) to four (all on-target) and 26.3% possession with a 64% pass-success rate.
Game state is a thing but that is pathetic. Tottenham wilfully ceded the ascendancy and by the time Manchester United’s goal sparked them into something resembling action, the visitors had already settled into a rhythm that was unlikely to be affected by the sight of Sissoko warming up on the touchline. The defeatist approach after going ahead was either a managerial directive or indicative of a team gaslighted into viewing every game as a tightrope walk during which your coach stands on the sidelines throwing rubbish at you and demanding you keep your balance. Neither reflects well on the highly-paid fella in charge.
6) Honestly though, only Manchester City have taken the lead in more Premier League games this season (26) than Tottenham (22). Pep Guardiola’s side have converted 88.4% (23) of those winning positions into victories, compared to Mourinho’s 63.6%. Imagine not winning more than a third of the games you lead in at some point. And imagine what that number would be if a serial winner wasn’t in charge.
7) The frustrating thing is that Tottenham genuinely were pretty good in the first half. Lucas Moura had an excellent opening 45 minutes as the game’s standout player. Tanguy Ndombele was providing copious amounts of what the youngsters might describe as The Sauce. Dier even made a solid block on Marcus Rashford.
Son’s goal was artistry, starting with Lo Celso flicking it round the corner and over Fred to Ndombele, who fizzed it into Harry Kane’s path. The captain’s first touch was laid beautifully into Lucas who centered for Son to score. This team can do that. It’s what these players are capable of when the situation and the framework permits. It was also their first shot on target of just three overall, with Dean Henderson’s two saves coming from a defensive error and Kane testing just how acute an angle can be before he has to consider anything other than trying to score. Tottenham at their absolute best was quickly followed by Tottenham at their abhorrent worst, as happens all too often.
8) The flipside to that second half is that Manchester United were really quite excellent. They could easily have crumbled under the weight of a perceived officiating error, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer placing that excuse firmly in his back pocket as Mike Phelan cast a nihilistic glance at the clouds. But they used it as fuel instead of relying on that self-fulfilling sense of knowing they can go behind because they have come back from such situations before.
This was different. It is probably overlooked just how influential scoring a goal in a tense game, only to have it ruled out before conceding one yourself can actually be. It is to their immense credit that they ensured it was a mere footnote, such was the improvement in standards in the second half. Solskjaer managed that side of things ever so well and deserves praise for his reaction in such matches since that 6-1 debacle in October. It took him time to trust himself and his players on these occasions again but having laid a solid groundwork with those many thousands nil-nils, Manchester United are excelling at picking on clubs their own supposed size once more.
9) There were two unfortunate byproducts of Edinson Cavani’s goal on the half-hour being ruled out. The first was thankfully rendered moot by the end as it wasn’t the decisive call it initially seemed. But the second lingers: a brilliantly worked effort being lost to those Stockley Park scoundrels. The way Manchester United moved the ball to Paul Pogba was sublime and his drag back before the assist for Cavani’s finish was dripping in game-changing quality. That amount of nutmeg must be unhealthy but it was lovely to see such a talented group of players cooking something they had prepared earlier rather than on instinct. That felt like a training-ground move rather than the standard vibe goal.
10) Pogba and Cavani combined well all afternoon. Even before the disallowed goal the former dominated Serge Aurier in the air to win a knockdown for the latter, who played Rashford in to shoot. They then linked up delightfully for the third. That relationship is something Solskjaer ought to try and foster if both stay at the club beyond this season as their one-touch play and overall understanding is striking.
11) That Pogba backheel crowned his overall performance, if anything. Our deepest sympathies are extended to the MailOnline and The Sun, both of whom would have had immense mileage in digging the Frenchman out and casually citing his wages if Manchester United had not gone on to win ever so comfortably. You can fault Pogba’s execution but not the decision-making to think that volleying a ball from six yards out with his right foot is for nerds if it is possible to try and manoeuvre into a position where you can backheel it with your left and completely waste the chance at 1-1.
He was the man of the match and controlled large periods of the game. Let him have his fun.
12) Dier managed to block that effort and the earlier Rashford attempt. Aside from that he was a couple of seconds behind when Manchester United launched their faster and more incisive attacks. He stood idly by and watched as Fred converted when Hugo Lloris parried Cavani’s effort. He stationed himself in the precise position where he could leave Cavani unmarked while simultaneously missing a simple enough header from Mason Greenwood’s cross to make it 2-1. He was brushed aside by Pogba and left stranded as Greenwood made it 3-1. The fella has his uses but none are as a Premier League-standard centre-half.
13) But perhaps the biggest mismatch in terms of players in the same position was at left-back. Reguilon was incredibly wasteful in the first half, far too imprecise for a team that relies on maximising what little possession they deign to have. That picked up slightly later on but Greenwood and Bruno Fernandes tormented him in the final ten minutes as his and Tottenham’s resistance crumbled. His forlorn call for offside as Manchester United scored their first goal despite him being the defender playing everyone on was lovely.
Luke Shaw was his diametric opposite: assured and composed. Tottenham had absolutely nothing down his side and the England international put in two phenomenal cross-field balls in the second half, the first producing a shot from Aaron Wan-Bissaka and the second creating that Pogba chance. That must have felt good against the man that once controlled his brain.
14) The substitutions told a particular story. Mourinho threw Sissoko on for Lo Celso in a misguided attempt to wrestle back the impetus, with Erik Lamela introduced for Ndombele a minute before Tottenham went behind. Gareth Bale was given eight minutes to rescue the game and somehow failed.
Solskjaer made two changes: the fantastic Greenwood for Rashford and Nemanja Matic for Fernandes. The first altered the game completely while the second helped underline it. The Norwegian’s substitutions have now produced 15 goals this season, at least three more than any other manager. That might be down to the sheer quality and attacking depth in his squad but Solskjaer’s substitutes only managed eight Premier League goals and assists in all of last season; he is improving in that aspect.
15) Henderson also deserves a note, the keeper far more proactive than usual in coming off his line to thwart attacks, while also mocking David de Gea by saving shots exclusively with his feet. But the unsung heroes of this Manchester United win might be that understated midfield. McTominay and Fred played for 72 and 42 minutes respectively while on a yellow card yet that did nothing to inhibit them against Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg. McTominay’s positional sense is improving. Fred, after a poor start, was great in possession. Neither are the long-term answer but either can be the short-term solution.
16) When it comes to their manager, Tottenham could do with both. Their place in the League Cup final has been a millstone that has dragged their entire season down. It has given Mourinho and his apologists something to point towards as proof of his inexorable genius in the face of mounting proof that this marriage has been an unmitigated failure. It might be consummated against all odds at Wembley on April 25 but that would only elongate the pain as the Portuguese and his media disciples pretend that winning a fourth-rate trophy is fine even if it is accompanied with a Europa Conference League place.
Little by little, pieces of his reputation are being chipped away. A first home defeat to Manchester United. The first time he has suffered ten losses in a single league season. His lowest league finish in a campaign he is permitted to complete surely follows. Tottenham were given firsthand experience of what cutting ties with Mourinho can do on Sunday. Manchester United are far from perfect but they are so much better without the Portuguese.