Spurs are fun again, of that there can now be no doubt. But are they also possibly actually quite good again? Very possibly. Yves Bissouma definitely is. James Maddison definitely is. Pape Sarr, Destiny Udogie, Guglielimo Vicario and Micky van de Ven may very well be. But above all, Ange Postecoglou is definitely good.
1) This was always a game likely to tell us a great deal about where these two teams stood with regard to addressing last season’s most conspicuous failings. Spurs won only three of their 16 games against the rest of the top nine last season and had never beaten Manchester United at their new stadium. Manchester United took just a point from their eight away games at the rest of the top nine last season, and that came here in a game they’d led 2-0 at the break.
Thus we have no choice but to kneejerk our way into declaring Spurs are about to have a brilliant season and United not so much after a 2-0 win that stirred the senses and gave the positive vibes surrounding Angeball the statement early win it needed to truly catch fire.
2) We’re going to focus a lot here on how good Spurs were in the second half, and quite possibly get extremely overexcited. So let’s make sure we get in right away with how different it could be and how not every day is going to be like this for a transformed and transformative Spurs side.
The first half hour showed an awful lot of the other side of this team, and there will be more days where that happens and days when Spurs don’t get away with it as they did today. Marcus Rashford should have done better with an early chance. Bruno Fernandes should have done far better with a free header from six yards.
Angeball – Andros Townsend said it live on Sky, so it’s canon now – relies on playing the ball out from the back and tucked-in full-backs receiving the ball on the half-turn. Pedro Porro did not enjoy it in a first-half that Gary Neville on commentary took as a personal affront. “He thinks he’s Rodri.” It could have gone very differently. It could have gone very wrong.
The bad days when they come – and they will – are going to be very bad. This is not a Spurs team that’s about to go and challenge for the title. But they’re going to be a fantastically good time and so for Spurs fans and neutrals it’s excellent news that they’ve started as they have. There is proof of concept now and this is the kind of day that can carry a team and manager through the tough times when they inevitably come. It’s also reasonable to expect the general trend will be upwards as players and manager get more accustomed with each other and what’s being asked. Which makes early evidence as compelling as this so very exciting.
3) It’s worth pausing to consider just what Postecoglou has already achieved at Spurs in transforming the entire vibe of the club. Whatever this season turns into for Ange and his squad, the ground was absolutely buzzing for this game. The fans – even after a protest against the owners’ greed in pumping up already wild ticket prices – were right up for a game that last season would have been approached with extreme trepidation.
At the most fundamental level, consider it this way. If you were told in May that Spurs would have a new manager with no Premier League experience and Harry Kane sold the day before the first game of the season, what would you have predicted the mood around the club to have been like for an August meeting with Manchester United. We’re pretty confident you would have got it very wrong. We definitely would.
4) In hindsight, there were enough teasers of what was to come in the second half in the closing minutes of a first half United had largely dominated. Spurs ended the half well, with Pedro Porro emerging from his Neville-baiting struggles to thunder a shot against the crossbar before Pape Sarr’s cross was deflected on to the post by Luke Shaw. But we still can’t really say we saw that second half coming.
5) Spurs were magnificent in that second half. When they get it right like this it’s a joyful thing to watch. James Maddison is already making us want to go back and change our answers to several of our pre-season predictions. It’s staggering just how quickly and how utterly he has become this team’s focal point. He is clearly an entirely different kind of player to Kane, but he has his shirt and already that sense that if he has a good day then so too will Spurs. He already feels talismanic, he already feels like he’s been there forever. Postecoglou talked after the game about a move coming at the right time for a player, and Maddison to Spurs feels like that. He was ready for it, maturing as a man as well as a player, and Spurs were a team in need of a new hero and a new focus. Early days, but he could not have done more in these first two games.
6) And yet he hasn’t even been Spurs’ best player of the season so far. That honour goes to Yves Bissouma. For the second week in a row, he was named Sky Sports’ man of the match. There were other contenders today, but you couldn’t quibble with Neville’s selection today any more than you could Alan Smith’s a week ago.
He is looking like a complete midfielder and the player we knew him to be from his Brighton days. He is doing things Spurs haven’t seen from a central midfielder since Mousa Dembele’s pomp and he is giving Spurs so much energy in every area of the pitch.
He’s a perfect Postecoglou midfielder, his surging runs and ability to retain possession under extreme pressure and wriggle out of the tightest spots allowing Spurs to play out from the back the way they want to with defenders always presented with a passing option. But he’s breaking lines with passes as well as running and getting far more involved in the final third than we’ve ever seen from him previously.
If only he could have understood Antonio Conte’s tactics, eh. What might have been. He’s certainly having no problem getting his head around Postecoglou’s.
7) Another man-of-the-match contender was the 20-year-old alongside him, who capped off a fine performance with a brilliantly taken opening goal. You don’t want to bang on about Conte too much – Spurs have moved on, so should we – but watching Bissouma and Sarr play like this it’s hard to escape the fact that Conte’s rep has taken a significant nosedive. These were players he pretty much declared uncoachable last season as he persisted with Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg (main qualities: shouting, pointing, looking busy) over guys who are now bossing games against Champions League qualifiers in the second week of the season under an entirely new system and entirely new approach under an entirely new manager with a much-changed squad.
8) It was a fine finish from Sarr to end a move that showcased exactly what this Spurs team is all about. Porro got himself in awful strife taking up defensive midfield positions, but when Spurs were attacking his positioning opens so many doors for Spurs. United still hadn’t fully come to terms with Spurs’ attacking shapes. Luke Shaw and Alejandro Garnacho made a terrible mess of things in allowing Kulusevski to collect the ball from Porro and surge almost unhindered toward the byline and deep into the penalty area to play his cross from what Neville rather unexpectedly evocatively described as “the land of deflections and hope”. It ricocheted off Lisandro Martinez, and Sarr – running at full tilt – was the quickest to react and make a difficult finish look easy. As first Spurs goals go, it’s not bad.
9) The second goal was coming from the moment Spurs scored the first. When it did, it was both beautiful and ludicrous. The gulf in quality between build-up and finish might just be the highest of any goal ever scored by anyone, anywhere.
Cristian Romero to Maddison to a rejuvenated and reenergised Ivan Perisic, who passed his cross through the legs of Diogo Dalot for the underlapping run of Ben Davies. He scuffed his finish completely, but Martinez completed a miserable evening by diverting the ball into the bottom corner. It was going wide before he got involved, but the panic in his hashed clearance was endemic in United by this stage.
10) Davies may not actually have got the goal, but it was still telling that he was the player in the position to have the chance and provoke (if not quite force) the error. Spurs were never going to replace Kane’s goals with one player, but Operation: Spread Kane’s Goals Around has got off to a better start than anyone could surely have imagined. Four goals now in two games against last season’s joint-third and joint-fifth meanest defences have come from two defenders, a central midfielder and an own goal created by another defender.
Spurs’ Kane-less front three remains the single biggest barrier to really significant success this season, but if they can start contributing as well then who knows where this all ends.
11) But we all know Spurs can and will attack with gusto. How will they cope at the other end of the pitch? There were certainly fraught moments, especially in an opening half-hour in which United were allowed 11 shots on goal, but here too there were ultimately encouraging signs. Spurs did tighten up, they did start to gain a bit of defensive control and most importantly a new keeper who is firmly under the spotlight had a fine game.
There’s a distinct sense that Guglielmo Vicario is almost being set up to fail. At least, that plenty of fans and pundits and commentators expect him to fail. He’s very Angeball in that we can already tell his mistakes are going to look horrible. But he’s also going to do wonderful things, and again getting a personal performance in like this before the pre-conceived notions can be fully baked in is absolutely crucial. He was excellent today in keeping his first clean sheet. We still need further evidence that he is more than an Italian Heurelho Gomes regen, but we are at least now sure that this is a description that represents his floor rather than his ceiling.
12) With Micky van de Ven overcoming his own early struggles to cope with Rashford and Destiny Udogie having another fine marauding game at left-back, this was another performance that hinted at some rare competence in Spurs’ recent recruitment. Direct comparisons are glib but unavoidable: Bissouma, Maddison and Sarr already looks like Spurs’ best midfield since Mousa Dembele’s legs started to go and between them cost about one Mason Mount or 70 per cent of a Moises Caicedo with Rodrigo Bentancur an intoxicating addition to that mix when he returns from a serious knee injury. It remains incredibly early days and Spurs could still just as easily finish tenth as third, but there are so many reasons for optimism and cheer across that squad right now.
The one exception is Richarlison. He endured another difficult day in which he struggled to get involved in any of Spurs’ best play and continued his unerring ability to be ever so slightly in the wrong place when balls break loose in the penalty area. There’s bad luck involved here, but there’s more to it than that. Spurs didn’t look bad with Richarlison on the pitch, but they looked better again when he made way for Perisic and Son moved into the middle. It may not be Son’s preferred role, but with Spurs’ new captain still someway short of his best when operating from the left anyway it might be the best solution among the current squad.
You wouldn’t be surprised to see Spurs try and sink some of that Kane windfall in another striker, but either way we remain wildly unconvinced that Richarlison is the long-term starting No. 9 in this team.
13) And talking of people who don’t really convince as No. 9s. If Rasmus Hojlund is going to be out for an extended period, United simply have to find another striker before the deadline. Even if Hojlund is available for every game between now and the end of time, they still need another striker. It doesn’t get the best out of Rashford and it’s stifling United’s attacking threat. Not many teams will be kept out by this cavalier Spurs team and it’s an indictment on United that they have managed just one goal in two games against Wolves (ripped to shreds by Brighton today) and a Spurs defence still getting to know each other and the system.
14) The good football United did play in the first half-hour was primarily about pouncing on Spurs errors. Which is fine, but they created little organically. And when they did, they f*cked it. There is minimal cohesion in United’s attack and their best and most creative passer was Andre Onana.
That’s fair enough too in a way, it’s legitimately part of the reason he was brought in. But he really represents the only tangible, identifiable plan in how Erik Ten Hag wants his side to play.
Whatever Spurs do or don’t do this season, there will be no difficulty identifying the plan and the idea behind it all. You’d have struggled today to identify Spurs as the team who’d had six weeks to learn a new system and style of player and United as the team who’d spent more than a year on it. They are almost back to square one.
15) By the end, it was almost embarrassing. As two of Spurs’ substitutes – Perisic and Davies – connected for the second goal with the shape and patterns that had been established in the previous 80 minutes still in place, United became ever more unbalanced and confused.
The introduction of Jadon Sancho and Christian Eriksen calmed things slightly and stemmed some of the bleeding that was coming in central midfield as Spurs followed Wolves’ lead in marauding through almost unchallenged, but it came at a cost of any balance and clarity in attack. Fernandes, who never quite seemed to get over that shocking first-half miss and spent the rest of the game in a funk, was shoved ineffectively out to the right and United relied more and more on long balls from the back that played neither to their strengths nor just as importantly to Spurs’ weaknesses.
United might be three points better off than after two games last season, but the performances look every bit as far away as they did in those defeats to Brighton and Brentford.
16) But the final word must go to Spurs, who in the second half produced one of the most eye-catching 45 minutes of the early weeks of a season where only a couple of teams have truly excelled. There will be days when it goes wrong. There will be days when the trauma of Kane’s departure will be keenly felt. There will be maddening defeats and careless draws. But there will be many, many more days like today, too. We said they’d be the most fun team to watch in the Premier League this season, and absolutely nothing of what we’ve seen so far is making us reconsider. Angeball? We’re all in, mate.