Manchester United picked up their second defeat of the young league season at home to Tottenham on Monday evening, intensifying the pressure on Jose Mourinho and, we can safely assume, deeply amusing the rest of the league. Tottenham weren’t exactly brilliant in picking up their first win at Old Trafford since 2014, but they didn’t need to be. United huffed, then puffed, then basically fell over.
Before the game, the general tension that always surrounds an underperforming United side was given a peculiar edge by rumours around the line-up. A change of personnel was almost certain, and a change of shape heavily trailed. There was even a suggestion that one or two players might end up playing out of their normal position, but luckily Nemanja Matic didn’t start in defence, That would have been ridiculous.
Ander Herrera did instead.
The game began in scrappy fashion. United were clearly trying to prove some kind of point and came out playing at some pace, There was even a little pressing, with Jesse Lingard leading from the front. But the unfamiliar shape threw up few chances, and the most notable incident of the first ten minutes came when Phil Jones got kicked in the head.
Still, where United’s midfield couldn’t quite work things out, Danny Rose was there to help. On the quarter-hour he sent a feeble backpass in the vague direction of Hugo Lloris, which turned into a very nice through-ball to Romelu Lukaku. He rounded the keeper but couldn’t roll the ball into the empty net, to disappointment around the stadium and disgust in the dugout.
After 20 minutes, Ander Herrera got booked for clattering Lucas Moura.
Gradually, United began to show signs of ... well not exactly life, but certainly something vaguely animated. Luke Shaw and Jesse Lingard were combining busily on the left, and Fred and Paul Pogba were working hard — if not with any great precision — in the middle. When Nemanja Matic got his feet tangled up in the middle, Chris Smalling was on hand to tidy things up.
And when Phil Jones bundled Lucas Moura over from behind, inside the box, the referee was on hand to completely ignore it for some reason.
As the first half wound down, your correspondent began to wonder how he might sum up an odd half of football. One that had featured lots of running around but very little attacking quality, one that had been seasoned by number of peculiar refereeing decisions. One in which an awful lot of things had almost happened, but hardly anything had happened.
Then Ander Herrera barged over Lucas Moura on the edge of the box, waved his hands in the air to demonstrate his innocence, watched the high ball pass over his head to Dele Alli, and scrambled back to fling his body in the way of the shot. Sorted.
Much of United’s endeavour was coming from Luke Shaw, and he began the second half with some intent, bamboozling Kieran Trippier with the old ‘pop the ball one side, scurry round the other’ trick. Which was fun. A pity Pogba’s eventual shot wasn’t quite on target.
However, Tottenham had clearly noticed that United’s left wingback was spending a lot of time going forward. After neat and foreboding work from Christian Eriksen down the left led to a corner, Harry Kane was able to pull away from Phil Jones and muscle a header beyond David de Gea. Lukaku’s attempt at an instant response was kept out by Lloris, and all of a sudden a football match was happening.
Spurs had clearly decided to exploit the space behind the adventurous Shaw, and their second came when United’s left back pressed Trippier and nobody covered in behind. Eriksen skipped into acres of space, then slid the ball across for Moura, who poked home through a crowd. Spurs had worked United out, and the home side were suddenly reeling.
Mourinho called an end to the Ander Herrera experience, sending Alexis Sanchez on to add a little more threat. Two more changes quickly followed: Jones was withdrawn with an injury, replaced by Victor Lindelof, and then Marouane Fellaini came on for Nemanja Matic.
Pressure came, in fits and starts. Lingard and Lukaku combined neatly down the middle, but as the Englishman waited for the ball to come down, Toby Alderweireld was able to nip in and clear. Fred sent a free-kick deep, and a rising Lindelof escaped his marker but could only find the side netting.
Then the Swede nearly ended his United career by sending the worst backpass of all time straight to Dele Alli, but De Gea was able to come to the rescue.
Did Manchester United continued to try to get at Spurs? Yes. Did they manage to score any goals? No. Did they even provoke a decent save from Lloris? Not really. And perhaps that’s the really galling thing about this particular defeat: this wasn’t a team that had given up. This was a team that, in the critical moments at either end, did not know what to do. When Moura accelerated past a flailing Smalling for Tottenham’s third, it felt heavy and symbolic.
The contrast with Tottenham was marked and more than a little embarrassing. The visitors, after an indifferent first half, came out with a plan, executed it, and then defended their lead stoutly. United were undone by the first half of that particular equation, then frustrated by the second, while Marcus Rashford watched from the bench and Anthony Martial from the stands. If this isn’t a crisis, it’s doing a very good impression of one.