Manchester United vs Tottenham: Fatalism, error and defining a season

Mistakes aren’t definitive in terms of the season’s outcome but will this apply to Manchester United and Tottenham?

oliver stein by Oli Stein

REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

What defines a season? A mistake — or series of — made during the summer with potentially disruptive consequences? Or the ensuing confrontation, resolution and eventual aftermath in the passing months?

Does the memory of Chelsea’s 2011/12 season, for example, evoke sorrow over what could have been under the erroneously appointed Andre Villas-Boas or is it entrenched in history for Didier Drogba’s Champions League-winning penalty against Bayern Munich on German soil?

Both Manchester United and Tottenham made mistakes this summer. A plethora, in fact, all of which possibly forebode of a disappointing season ahead. But when the campaign’s events eventually conclude, what will we remember?

Action Images via Reuters/Andrew Couldridge

Champions League participants in 2018/19, Manchester United and Tottenham finished in second and third respectively last season, 19 and 23 points off champions Manchester City. Disappointing and unwelcome — particularly for the Red Devils, who must endure watching their closest neighbours embark on a period of sustained superiority — it’s a divide both clubs aim to narrow this season.

To that end, Jose Mourinho parted with £52 million to bring Brazilian international Fred to Old Trafford in the hope that his arrival finally frees Paul Pogba, a concept so frequently invoked that it’s now veiled in the mythological.

Intrigue and hope, however, soon gave way to disillusionment and pessimism, quintessential symptoms in any of Mourinho’s third seasons, as reality dawned; Fred  — along with the uncharacteristic signings of 19-year-old Diogo Dalot and third choice keeper Lee Grant — was to be the only summer business, despite a frantic final week that involved failed bids for myriad centre backs, ranging from World Cup hero Harry Maguire to Atletico Madrid’s Diego Godin.

At least United could welcome a new player to Old Trafford, Spurs fans retort. The Lilywhites embarrassingly became the only club in Premier League history not to sign a player over the summer, despite chairman Daniel Levy’s promise that the construction of the now-delayed new stadium would not interfere with the alleged £150 million summer fund.

Action Images via Reuters/Andrew Boyers

Persistent links with the likes of Anthony Martial and Wilfried Zaha ultimately proved immaterial as Spurs, irrespective of what Mauricio Pochettino stated after the final game of last season, were not “brave” and the opportunity passed them by. They did not “take risks” to “create dreams,” nor did they follow the Argentine’s “clear ideas” for his “new project,” one aiming to catapult them into the elite of both domestic and European football.

READ: Are we sure… Lucas Moura isn’t a summer signing?

Dreams crumbling to dust was seemingly the theme of the summer. And what followed only served to enhance a burgeoning mood of toxicity around the club, as the new stadium, due to be opened on September 15th and another key facet of the plan to gatecrash football’s upper echelon, was delayed.

An understandable issue for any large-scale infrastructure project, Levy handled the communication poorly, however, and the manner in which fans’ feelings were put second to those of the NFL — with whom Spurs have a deal to host two games per year — fractured the fan base and risks undermining the years of goodwill carefully cultivated under Pochettino. 

But have Pochettino and his unchanged group of players bowed to the narrative that their mistakes over summer create? No. As Eric Dier says, it’s a “challenge,” and one the squad relish as a means of ensuring their critics “shut… up,” echoing the sentiments of his manager. “I have no doubt we will be competitive,” an unerringly determined Pochettino said, even going as far as suggesting that Spurs will “be better” this season than last.

REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

They’ve started as they mean to continue, quite opposite to Manchester United, with two wins from two Premier League games. Tottenham were both potent and fluid offensively, particularly against Fulham with Lucas Moura linking up extremely well with Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen, while Harry Kane is scoring goals in August, seemingly unperturbed by the events of the summer.

“We are happy with our squad and we cannot improve,” Pochettino commented, standing in stark contrast to Mourinho’s perpetual complaints over the strength of his own personnel. Pochettino turns positives into negatives, a strong-minded individual, whereas Mourinho has regressed. Somewhat child-like, the Portuguese sulks and moans, perennially wallowing in his despair, as if Ed Woodward has denied him an ice cream.

Such an attitude inevitably resonates on the players, no more apparent than in the 3-2 defeat to Brighton last weekend, one that seemed inescapable after an unconvincing win against Leicester on the opening day of the Premier League.

REUTERS/David Klein

In both fixtures, there was a clear lack of heart from the Red Devils. But it begs the question of how players can find the motivation to play for a manager who seems determined to fail, if only to vindicate his previous grievances. Giving rise to talk of turmoil and crisis, the club are arguably in their worst shape since Sir Alex Ferguson left in 2013, despite the stewardship David Moyes and Louis van Gaal.

Even Paul Pogba, a club icon, fan favourite and World Cup winner, doesn’t quell talk of his departure. He “cannot say” certain things for fear of punishment, as if Carrington has morphed into some wartime Communist camp, while tension between the Frenchman and Mourinho eternally mounts.

The Pogba situation makes for loose comparisons to that with Toby Alderweireld, a Manchester United transfer target. But while Pochettino swallowed his pride to reintegrate the Belgian, overcoming criticism and refusing to let it define his season, it’s as if Mourinho wants to watch Manchester United crash and burn.

As if fatalism engulfs him and he’s left bound to the pre-determined events the summer has set in motion. A cold, vengeful ‘I told you so’ to Woodward as the effects of his third season come to fruition.

REUTERS/David Klein

And there we have mistakes that threaten to shape the course of the campaign: Manchester United arguably didn’t strengthen enough in the areas demanding investment, as crisis ensues, while Tottenham failed to strengthen period, possibly rendering any attempts to catch Manchester City futile.

Will this be remembered as another of Mourinho’s third years or the summer that never was in Tottenham’s case? Pochettino is seemingly undeterred in his efforts to prove otherwise, whereas his Manchester United counterpart has accepted what fate has dictated.

This has the feel of an early season-defining fixture, such is the media attention surrounding both clubs. But the future, as Doc Emmett Brown prophetically tells Marty McFly, is whatever you make it. Mourinho should realise this.

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Oli Stein

Oli graduated from the University of Bristol with a degree in History and has worked with RealSport since September 2016. Currently assistant football editor and Tottenham correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @steinoliver_

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