A few thoughts on Manchester United's Monday night’s 3-0 loss to Mauricio Pochettino’s visiting Totenham Hotspur.
José Mourinho rings the changes
As expected, José Mourinho shook up his side after the shock loss at Brighton last weekend. Between the calamitous defending and non-existent effort on display at the Amex Arena, changes obviously needed to be made. The boss made six of them, in every area of his team.
Both center backs guilty of game-changing mistakes — Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelöf — were dropped, with Chris Smalling and Phil Jones drafted in as replacements. In a surprise tactical twist, Ander Herrera joined them in a three-man backline.
Nemanja Matić, Antonio Valencia, and Jesse Lingard also started for the first time this season. Not surprisingly, all six changes provided extra defensive stability and tactical discipline (at least on paper).
And it all worked so well — for fifty minutes.
United squander early chances
If Mourinho was looking for a response after the Brighton malaise, he got it. In the first half, his Reds held the ball well, shut down Harry Kane, peppered the Spurs goal with shots, and thoroughly outclassed the visitors in every facet of the game. The only thing they didn’t do, though, was score.
United thundered out of the gates, with Fred shooting just wide of goal in the opening seconds. Romelu Lukaku then had a golden opportunity to score when he latched onto a brainless back-pass from Danny Rose and rounded Hugo Lloris with the goalmouth looming. Unfortunately, he let Spurs off the hook by missing the target entirely.
Okay, it was definitely a tight angle, but Big Rom must do better. Chances like that can make all the difference in big games.
Lukaku wasted two more good chances in the first half, forcing a save from Lloris and later steering a free header wide of the post. By halftime, United had ten shots, but only two on goal.
The second half wasn’t much different. Paul Pogba rocketed a shot that whistled wide of Lloris’s righthand post shortly after the break. Notice the theme — everything was wide and off target. Woeful finishing, which so dearly cost United in last May’s FA Cup final, continues to rear its head this season.
Spurs, on the other hand, were not nearly so profligate in front of goal. Harry Kane opened the scoring in the 50th minute and then Lucas Moura capped off the rout with a brace.
In the end, Manchester United outshot Spurs 23-9 (although, tellingly, it was 5-5 when counting just shots on goal). The Reds also topped their visitors in chances created (17-7) and touches in the opponent’s box (32-17). It’s a good reminder that the only stat that really matters is goals scored.
A defense as fragile as ever
After allowing only 28 goals in the Premier League last season, United have already coughed up seven goals this season. In three games. Where did the stingy defense of 2017/18 go?
And, truthfully, the Reds should count themselves lucky that Spurs only scored three times. If not for some last-ditch blocks and a couple of acrobatic DDG saves, it could’ve been even worse.
“We were really frustrated at halftime with the result, but we really believed that we were going to win the game,” Mourinho told MUTV afterwards. “The last thing I told the players when they left the dressing room was that, in the first half, [Spurs] had zero free-kicks, zero lateral free-kicks, and zero corners, so make sure that if they have one then you cope with it. Then, one corner, one goal, and the game changed.”
That halftime advice went unheeded, as Phil Jones lost Kane on a corner and the Spurs star made no mistake with the free header. Jones limped off with a hamstring injury just eight minutes later. The less said about Lindelöf, his replacement, the better. Knowing Jones’s injury history, don’t count on seeing him again before September’s international break.
None of United’s center backs have distinguished themselves so far this season, so who knows where Mourinho will turn next.
By match’s end, Old Trafford was practically a morgue. Those supporters that remained clapped the players and manager off the field, but that was about the extent of the optimism on display. A stone-faced Ed Woodward looked on, but perhaps he was just glad that the plane banner stunt was postponed until the weekend.
On this night, his alleged decision to deny the manager more defensive signings seems especially shortsighted. Either Toby Alderweireld or Harry Maguire would look awfully good in a red shirt right about now.