Tottenham fans enjoyed their walk back along Wembley Way towards Wembley Park tube station, singing and smiling. The huge crowd of 81,978, the largest to watch an English league game for almost 70 years, meant they had to be patient as they queued to get on the underground.
For the third season in succession, their team had outclassed Manchester United at home. The journalist who questioned Mauricio Pochettino record against big clubs after the match was rightly met with a confused reaction from Tottenham’s manager.
Spurs keep losing 1-0 at Old Trafford but the swing when they’re at home is significant and Wembley is home for now. It was United’s 50th visit to Wembley, most of them for cup finals. For the first time, the Reds were heavily outnumbered, with only 3,000 of them in the vast crowd. Those fans had started to filter away from the 3,200-strong visitors’ section long before the end of the match. By the end, after United had lost 2-0, their players were applauding a bank of more or less empty seats.
United seldom lose matches under Jose Mourinho — just seven defeats from 37 matches so far this season — but far rarer is a defeat by more than one goal. None of United’s previous six defeats had been by more than a goal, and it was only United’s second loss by more than two goals in 87 games.
Against Tottenham, United were fortunate that the deficit remained at two for their big-name players didn’t turn up. Not Paul Pogba, who was substituted for Juan Mata after 62 minutes. Perhaps United’s email to members on Thursday entitled “Control the game like Pogba” could have been better timed as Pogba had a stinker comparable with his game against Liverpool a year ago.
Romelu Lukaku or fellow 2017 signing Nemanja Matic weren’t any better either. It’s rare that Matic and Pogba both perform poorly and have so little control in a match, while Lukaku’s early season ambition of scoring more goals this term than Harry Kane now looks fanciful. Still, there’s little wrong with him setting himself targets.
Alexis Sanchez, booed at the start of the game when he was feared and ignored at the end when he was not, tried hard but was ineffective. United’s defence got off to a calamitous start, conceding a goal after 10 seconds that was criticised by Mourinho, who noted that his side made four mistakes in that remarkably short space. United had 10 good minutes where the attack-minded line-up featuring Sanchez looked a threat, but that was it. They got worse as the game went on and had only two shots on target. It happens, as the Chelsea fans slipping back into the tube network at the same time as the Wembley crowd would admit.
While it’s frustrating for fans, it needs to be put into context.
Spurs finished 17 points ahead of United last season. After 25 games this term, United are five points clear of Spurs. United also have five points more than at the same stage last season. Spurs are decent too, drilled and talented enough to beat Real Madrid and finish top (and unbeaten) in a Champions League group with the reigning Spanish, European and world champions, Borussia Dortmund and Apoel Nicosia. They’re a long way off the days when the United dressing room would dismiss them with a “lads, it’s Tottenham.” But then so are United.
That said, Mourinho won two trophies last season. The much-vaunted Pochettino has done a very good job with Spurs but he’s yet to win any silverware.
Harry Kane, Mousa Dembele, Christian Eriksen and Jan Vertonghen were rightly praised while United’s efforts were rightly criticised, but it’s one game, just as Spurs’ last performance — a fortunate 1-1 draw vs. fourth-division Newport County — was slated. United had won their previous five games without conceding a goal, looking especially promising away at Everton when Pogba was a constant threat.
None of those vanquished January sides were as strong as Spurs, but United shouldn’t be compared to past United sides either. This remains a team in transition, with further improvements needed. Mourinho maintains he’s the man to make those improvements and United fans continue to back him. After all, what’s the realistic alternative? There are none.
Spurs were tactically better and Mourinho can’t be faulted for lacking attacking ambition with his starting XI, but it didn’t work and his substitutions failed to stop the rot. The well-taken own goal by Phil Jones, who has otherwise been enjoying one of his best seasons, summed up the night. More worrying was the sight of Marouane Fellaini leaving the field only seven minutes after coming on. The Belgium midfielder can help when United are behind, but what his manager feared to be a re-occurrence of his injury meant he headed down the tunnel tearing his shirt off in frustration. At least Fellaini has a manager who’ll back him during difficult times. (Sources would later suggest he could miss up to two months if his knee injury is as bad as feared.)
Despite being dominated by Spurs, United are in a far better place than two years ago, with the weekly snooze fests under Louis van Gaal.
There are some valid questions that Mourinho needs to answer. What is Pogba’s best position? Why didn’t Mourinho make changes at half-time with his side 2-0 down? Why couldn’t any players get near Eriksen? Why was Mousa Dembele allowed to be so dominant? Why do United lose so convincingly every time they play at Tottenham? Why did Chris Smalling and Jones, two experienced defenders who have played together for club and country, look like they’d just met for the first time on the tube en route to Britain’s biggest stadium? At least David de Gea continues to perform, while Anthony Martial was United’s one threat in the first half.
United need to bounce back quickly against a Huddersfield side who inflicted their first league defeat of the season in October. The United players also need to try and remain unaffected by the emotion that will be evident as the 60th anniversary of the Munich Air Crash is remembered.