Despite all of the snarling, the winging and the moaning, the criticism that has come the way of the executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward from Gary Neville, Paul Scholes lashing out at record-signing Paul Pogba, the oppressive mood, the possibility of a dressing room split and a Twitter tirade from perhaps the most influential agent involved with the club’s players…Manchester United are becoming too soft.
Many of the 70,000-plus home supporters felt a sense of trepidation stepping through the turnstiles at Old Trafford this evening for the match against Tottenham Hotspur. They knew they were committing themselves to the latest 90-minute edition of the United soap opera; whatever that may serve up.
If there was anything to come out of the dismal defeat last weekend at Brighton & Hove Albion it was that United were short of passion and aggression, the only grit there was that stuck to the soles of the players Balenciaga shoes as they trod across the Amex stadium car park. The qualities that Jose Mourinho has so often craved his team to embody were nowhere to be seen. Rather than attitude there was ineptitude.
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United have started to resemble a soft touch, there has been little resolve about their performances and they are becoming too nice. Allowing Glenn Murray to waltz into their penalty area with the grace of a gliding swan takes some doing, but United managed it. It is the lack of fight that is truly troubling for those United fans that travelled down to the South coast for a late Sunday afternoon kickoff. It is debatable whether it is Mourinho’s methods that are out-dated or the principals themselves.
At home, however, United have been more solid. Hence, the anticipation ahead of this evening’s match-up. Last season they had the joint best home record in matches involving the top six; their only home defeat came against Manchester City last December. But whether Mourinho could still stir the passions of his players enough for them to deliver in crucial moments against the top teams now was an intriguing thought pre-match.
In many ways, the supporters just longed for the match to start and the weekly white noise to stop. This represented an opportunity for them to get behind their side and, ultimately, for United to regain some positivity and belligerence in the early stages of this Premier League season.
Eyebrows were raised when the teams were announced prior to kickoff – there where more tactical tweaks and surprising inclusions than the piece of A4 could manage. Hugo Lloris kept his place in goal, and the captaincy, for Tottenham despite spending some of the past week behinds bars rather than below one.
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Danny Rose also made his first start of the season and within the opening 15 minutes almost made Mauricio Pochettino regret his decision when he played a nonchalant pass back to Lloris with insufficient weight behind it allowing Romelu Lukaku to latch on but he struck the ball wide of the far post having rounded the goalkeeper.
United pressed high, spearheaded by Jesse Lingard, pinning the Spurs defence back but the visitors did make ground by lifting the ball over the initial press where space suddenly opened up. That was until they reached United’s back-five. Mourinho showed his first bit of invention for some time by deploying Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Ander Herrera in central defence whilst disposing of Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof.
There were signs of improvement from United, playing with more pace and setting up higher up the pitch towards the Spurs goal aided greater chance creation. Pogba was liberated into a more creative role on the edge of the penalty area as Fred and Nemanja Matic took more of the defensive responsibility.
The high tempo of the match did bring about mistakes and wayward passes from both sides but in many ways the spectacle was better for it. Tottenham played with a 4-2-1-2 formation that didn’t get the best out of Harry Kane who struggled to get into the match. Instead, it was his strike partner Lucas Moura that tested the United back-line the most and he should have had a penalty when brought down by Jones.
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Yet when the time came, so did the Kane and having not had a sniff for the entire first-half, the Spurs striker headed in from a corner less than five minutes after the break. And that started a frantic three-minute spell in which Lukaku forced Lloris into a fingertip save before Moura got the goal that his performance deserved.
The two goals brought about an attacking United change, Alexis Sanchez replaced Herrera and consequently the back-four returned. But their good fortunes did not. The Spurs supporters, who had travelled to Manchester in their droves despite the best efforts of Network Rail to stop them, sang, “you’re not special anymore” in the direction of Mourinho; pertinent some of the disgruntled United fans may say.
Dele Alli fluffed his lines in front of David De Gea and Kane missed a free-header at the back post but Moura did put the seal on it with a third in the final five minutes. United had shown signs of a fight-back but the fact that luck wasn’t on their side was just another to be added to the long list.
In reality, it was a game won in a three-minute spell when Spurs took their chances whilst United were swiping at theirs. The quality was not high but the excitement was there. As were some small signs of improvement from the hosts – the first-half especially – but one win from their opening three Premier League games does not make for happy reading. Neither will the review of the latest episode in this melodramatic soap opera.