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    16 Conclusions from north London

    Will Tottenham or Manchester United be happier with shared spoils in north London? It’s difficult to say…

     

    1) Well that wasn’t as good as this.

     

    2) When the starting line-ups were announced, Tottenham would have snatched at the offer of a draw while Manchester United might well have sensed an opportunity. Roy Keane shockingly over-egged it a little – backing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side to “flex their muscles” against Jose Mourinho’s “weak” and “soft” Spurs – but the sentiment was hardly unique.

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    The hosts paired a fearsome attack with a suspect defence, as if wearing a suit, shirt and tie with tattered boxers and odd socks to a Zoom meeting. Manchester United looked more balanced, more settled and altogether more rounded on paper.

    Spurs will be as disappointed at their good work being undone by one moment of foolishness as they are relieved at that particular bout of lightning not quite striking twice. United’s contentment at finding a way through will be tempered with regret at not doing so sooner. But these were 90 minutes to prove that, despite the respective narratives, Spurs and Manchester United are not at all far apart.

     

    3) There will be criticism of Mourinho, much of it legitimate. Making two of a possible five substitutions seems negligent and Tottenham were passive to the point of parody at times in that second half. Their last shot on target came in the 31st minute.

    But there were bright spots. The doomed midfield partnership of Moussa Sissoko and Harry Winks actually fared well, the front four combined beautifully when permitted to do so and Hugo Lloris was excellent. Ideas were evident, although not always appropriate. There was, at the very least, proof that the manager and players have been working tirelessly over the last three months in search of necessary improvements. Some will see two points dropped; plenty may herald one earned.

     

    4) Solskjaer will be the happier of the two coaches. Manchester United looked aimless at times and desperately lacked invention but they persevered and pressure eventually told. Any condemnation of the manager’s team selection should be mitigated by the fact his changes helped turn the game.

    There is no guarantee Paul Pogba would have had that sort of effect from the start. He clearly benefited from being able to isolate a tired Eric Dier as Tottenham retreated deeper and deeper. The Frenchman was given just 28 minutes to impress yet only Luke Shaw completed more dribbles, such was the time and space he was afforded.

    Mason Greenwood provided more impetus than the limp Daniel James, while Nemanja Matic and Odion Ighalo both created a chance each to emphasise the variation in this squad. This should not be sold as a step forward, but the important thing is that it was not a step back.

     

    5) It was difficult not to feel a sort of joy at Pogba making the difference. The revisionism of his entire tenure at Old Trafford has been dizzying, with Bruno Fernandes used to mock and shame a world champion that his club supposedly no longer wants nor needs. The idea that the Portuguese ‘has made a bigger impact in nine games at United than Pogba in four years’ is utter bollocks.

    Fernandes might be precisely the signing United needed to unlock Pogba’s true potential. There is a sense that he will thrive off actual competition instead of spending his time having to applaud wayward Jesse Lingard passes or failed Andreas Pereira flicks. Perhaps all he ever needed was a peer to share the limelight and burden of creativity with? It rather jars with the depiction of Pogba as a self-absorbed, individualistic egotist, but then that was never a fair assessment.

    Watch that inch-perfect ball to Rashford in the 85th minute again and tell me United have no use for Pogba.

     

    6) Rashford was frustrating and haphazard, mind. He really ought to have scored from Davinson Sanchez’s awful first-half header and was relatively anonymous thereafter. What a shame that the feeder of an entire nation’s children was so starved of reliable service.

    Fernandes was the opposite; he had almost too much of the ball. This was the kind of game that will have left those accustomed to his time in Portugal nodding sagely: the exasperating long-range shooting, erratic passing and chaotic decision-making. Ignore the penalty and that sumptuous pass into Anthony Martial for the second-half chance Dier blocked, and that wasn’t a great performance.

    But that is the key. Rashford, even on a forgettable evening, forced one smart save. Fernandes, in what might have been his worst Manchester United game to date, scored the equaliser and was a constant presence. With Pogba, United have three magicians they can rely on to conjure something even at their most underwhelming.

     

    7) Steven Bergwijn has that same effect but with a completely different energy. It feels like he never wastes a touch, that everything is crisp, precise and exactly how he intended. He had the highest pass-completion rate of any Tottenham player yet it goes beyond that into something more ethereal.

    Look at his opener: there is a purpose to everything he does, as though he is in his back garden reenacting a goal he has already seen. It is a remarkable, powerful and uncoachable trait, and absolutely invaluable for a forward under a coach hardly famed for his prowess in attacking coaching. He is and will be better for Mourinho than Harry Kane.

     

    8) That was some assist from the Manchester United defence, of course. Shaw’s headed clearance from a Lloris goal kick was no crime but unnecessarily pushing forward set off a chain reaction. Harry Maguire was required to move across and cover, Fred was caught between two halves and David de Gea provided meek resistance.

    It was a formidable shot but straight at the Spaniard, who could not position his hands quickly enough and was thoroughly beaten. If it was an isolated incident then the benefit of the doubt would be given to a keeper who has rescued United countless times over the years. As it is, in an industry as unforgiving as this, the club would be stupid to loan Dean Henderson out ever again.

     

    9) Keane and co-commentator Gary Neville contributed to the backlash against De Gea. The former did spare a few words for Maguire, with “staggered” an inspired choice to simultaneously describe his own feelings and the centre-half’s impression of a statue toppling at the hands of a protesting Bergwijn.

    De Gea tried to put out a raging fire by pissing on it, yet it was Maguire who carried a stench of petrol and a burnt match. It was utterly embarrassing to watch him slowly back away from the danger before turning like a tanker as Bergwijn raced past him. The sight of the world’s most expensive centre-half snatching at his parachute cord in panic was quite something. As glorious as it is to watch him amble out of defence to play the ball sideways, that lack of athleticism really can be painfully awkward.

     

    10) Which leads us nicely onto Keane’s punditry. It feels ever so forced, from pairing him with the walking smile that is Patrice Evra to Sky Sports hurriedly clipping his exasperation up for social-media fodder. The analysis might be genuine – no-one would preplan using the word “flabbergasted” on live television – but it’s just so performative. The idea that someone who shared a dressing room with Massimo Taibi and Mark Bosnich “would be swinging punches at half-time” because of a basic goalkeeping mistake, that De Gea should have caught Heung-min Son’s later header instead of pulling off a fine save to tip it over the bar, just comes across as staged. Yet this is the same man who carried a grudge for almost four years before trying to separate someone’s lower leg from their knee, so perhaps the question is simply whether it makes for good punditry. And if you genuinely believe any of that half-time rant qualified as ‘expertise’, then credit to you. Maybe that level of confected rage can only be reached by those who have played the game.

     

    11) As far as Erik Lamela games go, that was a wonderful distillation of what he offers. He picked up some great positions in a more central role but let himself down by failing to release the ball soon enough. He led the counter press tirelessly. He committed the most fouls of any player but avoided a booking.

    Lamela was wasteful but diligent. And the opportunities he let slip through his fingers – passing to Son too late on two occasions when he would have been clean through – were earned through the sort of positioning, movement and awareness that another player in his position might not have shown. As a link between the midfield and forwards, he was a pleasant surprise – as was his delightful fade and blonde dye job. His partner must be a hairdresser. How fortunate.

     

    12) James did nothing to further his starting prospects beyond this summer, however. His is the least certain position in Solskjaer’s current line-up and Friday evening was merely proof as to why. No shots, chances created, dribbles, tackles or interceptions was a woeful return for just over an hour’s work. Despite the best efforts of some, James won’t retain his place for long. He has his uses as a squad option but this was a timely reminder of what United’s immediate transfer priorities are.

     

    13) The advent of drinks breaks midway through each half offer a different challenge to managers and players. Both times, Manchester United were in the ascendancy but had their momentum halted so Serge Aurier could take on some fluids.

    Before the break in the first half, United had two shots to one, 62.1% possession and 90% pass accuracy. Tottenham scored three minutes after the restart, having previously been anonymous. Then from the 46th minute to the second-half pause in the 69th, they had five shots to one and 66.3% possession. It took them 11 minutes to register another effort: the Fernandes penalty. Credit to United for riding a crest they had been pushed from. As necessary as it is, these breaks are another unplannable variable managers would probably rather do without.

     

    14) The Fernandes goal, rather than forcing Tottenham further into their shell, coaxed them out. That sort of late equaliser tends to become the precursor to waves of attacks in search of a winner but Manchester United actually found themselves pegged back instead.

    In hindsight, Mourinho should probably have made one more change. Giovani Lo Celso and Gedson Fernandes changed the midfield dynamic somewhat but the impetus that was lost with Lamela and Bergwijn’s removals could have been compensated for by the introduction of Tanguy Ndombele or Ryan Sessegnon. Solskjaer utilised his bench to make defensive and offensive alterations and react to the game’s many switches but Mourinho naming nine substitutions felt like more of an obligation than an intention.

     

    15) There is a wider point to be made about squad depth. United’s alternatives were certainly more tantalising and obvious in their game-changing nature. And that is down to planning, clarity and direction off the pitch: each member of their starting XI is under contract until at least 2023, with only Shaw and Fred not extending their deals since January 2019. Tottenham, by contrast, had four starters whose contracts expire in the next two years and two players – Lloris and Dier – whose most recent extensions were signed in 2016. These two clubs are close in terms of quality but one is far ahead when it comes to stability in foundations.

     

    16) Kane, though. The time out cannot really be used an excuse considering Sissoko’s last Premier League start was on the same day – January 1 – and the Frenchman was imperious. For Mourinho to keep the striker on despite all evidence pointing to the contrary was naive. The idea that removing a player of Kane’s standard, the sort that can score a goal from nothing, can only happen when you have a four-goal cushion is outdated. When a player is ineffective and visibly tired, it is foolish and counter-productive to keep him on for 95 minutes. Tottenham do need a back-up striker yet Son has proven himself beyond all doubt as capable of leading the line, so trusting him to do so as a Plan B if the Plan A of Kane fails seems obvious. And when Mourinho complains that he has no Kane after he inevitably breaks down with an ankle injury in the coming weeks, he should expect no sympathy.

    Matt Stead

     





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