Manchester United vs Tottenham: Five things we learned

In a game that everyone expected to be a dour affair, United ran out 1-0 winners over Tottenham. Jon Mackenzie gives us five things we learned from the occasion.

It’s always interesting to see how football clubs self-define. Manchester United have, at least since Sir Alex Ferguson settled into the manager’s chair at Old Trafford, considered themselves an exciting team who play a blistering form of counter-attacking football. 

With the arrival of Jose Mourinho, though, Manchester United fans have found themselves somewhat conflicted. Two trophies have come – albeit trophies they aren’t exactly of the stature that United fans expect – but at a cost. 

As many a self-congratulating pundit has pointed out, in recent times the so-called Theatre of Dreams is aptly named: not because Mourinho has blooded a style of football that gives you out of body experiences but because the stodgy low block that he sets his team up in is more likely than not to send to sleep in the stands at Old Trafford.

Saturday’s early kick-off was no different. Long stretches of uninspiring, stand-offish football were punctuated by something approaching a counter-attack and, in the end, it was United who came off better: Anthony Martial running onto a header from Romelu Lukaku to squeeze the ball past Hugo Lloris in the Tottenham goal.

In many respects, then, the main thing we learned from the game was the thing we already knew – Jose Mourinho still believes his methodology is sound. Along with this, Jon Mackenzie has listed four other things we learned from the game.

  1. 1 Mourinho is nothing if not self-assured

    The game had ended and, not one to miss an opportunity to steal the limelight, Jose Mourinho turned to face the camera and slowly lifted a finger to his lips. 'Quiet,' he seemed to be saying. 'The Special One is still walking amongst you.'

    Of course, there are few people who see these Mouriniho-isms as anything but buffoonery these days. His team had narrowly beaten a Spurs side who, despite being played off the park by Manchester United in long spells through the second half, were missing their talismanic-outside-of-August striker Harry Kane along with other key members of their squad.

    For Mourinho, though, the match itself was clearly seen as some sort of divine vindication for the recent backlash against his modus operandi. That's the thing with party tricks: had he not managed to beat Spurs at home playing his particular brand of 'Park the Bus', then questions would have been raised by the fans, the media and, likely enough, the Manchester United hierarchy (which includes the Sirs - Alex Ferguson and Bobby Charlton).

    By raising his finger to the cameras, then, Mourinho clearly views this as another example of himself versus the world. But here's the thing: most of us aren't anti-Jose Mourinho per se - we're anti-anti-football. And if Mourinho can't win the league playing anti-football... then the question has to be raised whether or not he (or at least it) needs to be confined to the annals of history? 

  2. 2 Lukaku isn't exactly to blame for his top six record

    Romelu Lukaku's record against the top six sides is easy enough to take a pop at. Having played for Everton, you would have expected him to score fewer goals against the better sides. But now he's moved to Manchester United, so the logic goes, we now have a fairer test case by which to analyse his true greatness.

    Except that this isn't exactly fair is it? Especially when you take into account the fact that his great detractors these days are often the same people who give Jose Mourinho so much opprobrium for being defensively minded. 

    The fact of the matter is that Romelu Lukaku is now a member of team who are set up to defend first against the big Premier League sides. One only has to think back to United's recent fixture against Liverpool at Anfield and look at the way that Lukaku was entirely isolated as the loan striker to realise that it's hardly to be expected that he should suddenly become prolific against United's closest rivals.

    Against Spurs this weekend, the same was very much true: Lukaku looked isolated until Anthony Martial was brought on to partner him up front. With Martial in attendance, Lukaku and United looked much brighter in the second half and it was hardly surprising when the two men linked up for the goal. If anything, though, this presents yet another indictment of Mourniho's tentative approach.

  3. 3 Spurs do rely on Harry Kane

    However you look at it, Spurs do rely on Harry Kane. Which isn't to denigrate them in any way. It should hardly be surprising that any team would be reliant upon a player who has been so proficient for them in front of goal. 

    It's easy to target the absence of Kane as the reason why Spurs struggled to score.  However, without him in the side, Tottenham's finely balanced attack which was so devastating against Liverpool starts to look a little awkward. 

    With Dele Alli and Son Heung-Min playing as a front two, Christian Eriksen dropped into a deeper position in the midfield. What resulted was a lack of creativity on Spurs' part with their only clear-cut chance of the game falling to Alli in the 77th minute. 

    Last season, Mauricio Pochettino was able to get his Spurs side to second in the Premier League due to the fact he was able to maintain a small squad group without too many injury scares. This season, his success could have everything to do with whether he manages to keep his best players fit. 

    What will be playing at the back of his mind is the fact that, as soon as he loses a few key players, his side starts to look threadbare very quickly indeed.

  4. 4 Alli needs to turn his season around as soon as possible

    Dele Alli had a disappointing game even by this season's poor standards. Putting Spurs' only clear chance of the game wide, he also lost the ball five times simply through poor touches. 

    After an outstanding break-out season last year, the England youngster seems to have struggled to cope with the expectations that have quickly been dumped on his 21-year-old shoulders.

    Part of the problem here is the fact that the English game seems to prioritise industry over production. Where Alli has been best in the past is floating between Kane and Eriksen a profiting from their brilliance. This season, though, it seems as though he is playing like someone with more of an eye to YouTube video highlight reels than his own team.

    Of course, it's all too easy to critique young players along these sorts of lines in modern football. What should be said, though, is that players can sometimes try too hard - try to force chances faster than the patient build-up allows with the result that they end up looking disinterested. 

    This season, it looks like Alli is falling into this trap. It may be better for him in the long run to remain patient and do all of the little things well. Unless he does this soon, his season might end up being a disappointment.

  5. 5 Pochettino is cruising... but to where?

    “The game was under control, we didn’t concede many chances, only a short period in the second half when we conceded a few actions. It was always under control.”

    Such was the post-match assessment of Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino. Interestingly enough, though, this appraisal of the game could be the same as an appraisal of Pochettino's time at Spurs as a whole. 

    In his time at the club, Pochettino has been cruising, making Spurs a club to be feared in the Premier League. However, whilst there is a case to be made that the Argentine has always been 'under control' there are always moments in his Tottenham career where he has 'conceded a few actions'.

    In fact, some of these times have been at Old Trafford. Only two managers - Tim Sherwood and Andre Villas-Boas - have won at the home of Manchester United in the last 28 years. 

    This is reflective of a more general trend in Pochettino's time at the club. In the last 16 away games against top six opposition, Tottenham have only won one game under their much-feted manager. If Mauricio Pochettino is really to go down in history as one of Spurs' greatest coaches, this is a trend that he will have to reverse soon.

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Jon Mackenzie

Jon Mackenzie is the Football Editor at RealSport.

Regularly appearing on talkSPORT radio, his work has also featured in The Economist, The Blizzard, Tifo Football and on the Futbolgrad Network.

A UEFA and Premier League-accredited journalist, Jon also founded A Team of John O'Sheas podcast and hosts it every week.

Follow him on Twitter @Jon_Mackenzie