Manchester United were humiliated by Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham Hotspur as the club’s former boss came back to haunt Ole Gunnar Solskjaer with a relentless display which punished the home defence.
It all started so well – Bruno Fernandes scored in the second minute – but Spurs responded immediately to register a comprehensive and damning defeat, matching Manchester City’s infamous 6-1 victory.
Neat build-up between Fernandes and Anthony Martial resulted in a foul in the box on the latter by Davinson Sanchez; Fernandes, who scored with the last kick of the game last week, scored this time too.
It was hoped that Bailly’s inclusion would help United have an increased composure in that backline. But within 2 minutes, Spurs were level – Pogba decided to clip a pass back into his own box. Maguire didn’t deal with it. Bailly headed it up and then aimlessly again. Maguire stumbled. Ndombele equalised.
United were at sixes and sevens. Just a couple of minutes later, Kane took a quick free-kick which embarrassed the home defence again. Son raced through, Shaw tried to close him down but made De Gea’s job harder, and the Spurs forward cleverly tapped the ball over the keeper. Just eight minutes gone and United had taken the lead and thrown it away.
In the 12th minute Spurs won a free-kick when Kane blasted the ball and Shaw was incredibly harshly punished for handball – United were fortunate that the free-kick was poor. Son, Aurier and Lamela all had chances to make it three after Spurs soaked up a little bit of pressure and realised that the hosts were there for the taking.
Anthony Taylor, the referee, then bizarrely sent only Martial off for responding to a raised hand by Lamela by doing likewise. It was a bizarre decision. If Martial deserved to go, so too did the instigator – but even with VAR, that decision stood as it was. It would not have mattered.
But United’s woes were compounded moments later when their inability to play out of defence once again hurt them deeply; Bailly gave the ball away cheaply in his own area. Matic was unable to get control of the ball. Spurs did – and Kane slid the ball in to make it 3-1.
Martial’s dismissal would be an excuse for United to be toothless up front but the defence was at full complement so ought not to have been lacerated as relentlessly as it was. Luke Shaw was caught – somehow – in front of Maguire. Son took advantage of the hopeless positioning to make it four.
United were desperate to get to half-time at four after the worst half of defending in their Premier League history. They were lucky to.
Solskjaer brought off Fernandes and Matic – a tactic to protect a three goal deficit. At home. At half-time. It was bad enough that it was understandable. It was worse still that it didn’t work. Shaw and Pogba were caught daydreaming again – the story of their Old Trafford careers – and Aurier scored early in the second half to set the tone.
Mourinho spent long enough with Shaw to know there was much joy to be found. In fact, it could be said that he was an expert at exploiting many of the issues he helped create.
Paul Pogba’s late slide on Ben Davies gave a penalty away in the 78th minute. Harry Kane smashed in the kick to match the six City scored here in 2011.
Luke Shaw was booked when he could have been sent off; but United were playing like they were down to seven anyway. His team were fortunate not to concede seven.
United have been beaten heavily in the Premier League before and so you might say that there is no cause for over-reaction. But those were blips, aberrations to a team who had an off-day. This was a game where the scoreline did not feel like a freak. It will surely have significant repercussions – but, as always, not necessarily where it should.
Eric Bailly’s inclusion was a hint that a centre-back definitely won’t be coming in – but either way his place in the starting line up in favour of Victor Lindelof was one universally agreed upon. With Bailly, you roll the dice and take your chances. A calm display at Luton led to increased calls for his recall. But United’s need for strengthening in the defence has never been more evident. The first half in particular stood as strong evidence for the worst period of defending in the last seven years.
The question over Van De Beek’s gradual acclimation into the team continues to be asked when United are not playing well. His signing has mirrored that of Fred’s – a midfield reinforcement that would have been nice if it came after the major surgery that was required. Both of them ended up on the pitch in the last 25 minutes, unsure what their purpose was, which more or less summed everything up.
Man for man, few would have argued with the starting team. So the manager will have to take a significant amount of the blame, too. More on that to follow.
A year ago this weekend United lost at Newcastle in one of their worst post-Sir Alex Ferguson performances. It seemed difficult to argue a case for Solskjaer to continue and for United to improve. Allowed to leave late that summer were Sanchez and Lukaku in addition to Herrera’s departure. The first team included Dalot, Young and Pereira, all of whom have since gone (albeit two on loan) – Rojo came on, McTominay and Fred were the starting midfield and Dan James was being relied upon much too heavily.
There were concerns about that team and rightly so. There were fewer concerns today, and still…
Today’s opponent was a good barometer of where United are. The identity of their current manager, the identity and availability of their previous manager, the fact that Spurs were in a Champions League final a year and half ago and have undergone struggle since – all of these factors played a part in the compelling narrative of another dark day in the modern chapters of Manchester United’s history.
Where United could end up in that fight between 3rd and 10th is anybody’s guess but after Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and the current manager have all suffered in varying degrees due to the strange ownership plan at the club, it remains clear that it is the owners who continue to undermine the ambition of any progression at Old Trafford.
Solskjaer has been as ruthless as any manager could be. He’s done that either by decision or by instruction. But he’s gone through the centre-backs. There’s nowhere to go at full-back. The forward line has been stripped bare so that there is no choice other than the players who are in the team. And United do not have a good enough team to convince you that they will qualify for the Champions League again, much less challenge for honours.
Having got United back into the Champions League, Solskjaer wasn’t rewarded with the backing the club desperately needed. Instead, his best hope is the sort of last-minute panic buying that Arsene Wenger was given at Arsenal following the 8-2 defeat at Old Trafford in 2011.
The most realistic output? One or two budget signings; enough to placate the support that a token effort has been made. It’s going to be a Cavani when an Upamecano, Telles and Koulibaly at least are needed. And one or two months of mixed performances, with the next heavy beating likely to provoke the change at the top, if this one doesn’t; and a ready-made excuse for not spending until the summer at least.
How terrible it is. And there is still the insult to injury to come at some point – when the financial figures will reveal the money the owners have taken out of the club for themselves and not on transfers – is going to sting hard in the wake of the excuse about the pandemic.
It doesn’t matter if they take £10m or £1 out. At that point it’s not negligence. It’s not even greed. It’s tantamount to theft.
Solskjaer has had United playing the best football and come up with some of the most innovative tactics in the post-Ferguson era. The bar was low. And the limitations that come with the lack of experience he has have been exposed.
Of course I am loathe to blame the manager for a mess when the rot set in before he returned. But he has to be culpable, too.
There is a certain liberation that helped the forward players look as if they were more expressive creatively. But it seems as if freedom is not a plan; it’s a complete lack of tactical discipline, which is all the more distressing when you consider Ole’s general success when he has deployed a tactical plan. He’s done it against this opponent before. But those are looking like fortunate counter-attacking strategies.
This was a game where it seemed obvious that the job is too big for him.
It requires someone with more experience. More top-level know-how. It’s the difference between looking effectively pretty and being pretty effective. The difference between winning a League Cup and a Europa League and finishing second despite playing some terrible football, and going nowhere with occasional good football. United need more. For all his flaws, for all of his incompatibility with United, the difference between a manager with pedigree and a manager with none could be seen.
I’ve backed him, I wish it would turn around and come good. But the team is a reflection of its manager and whilst you can argue he should have been backed, you also ask if he is getting the best out of what he has. He isn’t.
Defensively United are bad. In midfield, there is nothing beyond a basic shape of three. The lack of pace has been distressingly easy for opposing managers to outsmart. Solskjaer hasn’t countered that – he just continues, hoping that the faith he placed in a consistent side would come good through experience. It hasn’t. It won’t.
Today was a nadir. We saw it at Everton in April 2019 and excused it because Solskjaer had recently taken over. We saw it a few times last season and excused it because it was part of a transition. We saw it against Crystal Palace and it was blamed on players not being ready. No more excuses.
You could argue that had he been backed sufficiently, United would have been better equipped. Of course they would. It’s always better to see a manager’s full plan instead of only a percentage of it, as with Van Gaal, as with Mourinho. At some stage along the way Woodward always intervenes to personally influence that plan. It always, always ends badly.
But there is a stronger argument to say Ole, whilst far from the only problem or the main one, now has strong enough concerns against him that his job should be at risk.
Just as it seemed it was this time last year. Even Woodward would surely not dare to sack a manager with a day of the transfer window to go – but it is a matter of when and not if.
Unfortunately, rightly so. The two arguments in his favour are sentiment and that he is trying to do things the right way. They’re not strong enough arguments. The risk of hiring a manager without a track record of managing at this level is that most of the time romance doesn’t equate to realism.
United’s need is simply for a better manager, just as it is for a better owner, a better person in charge of hiring and firing, and better players in the squad.
The irony is that Woodward could have been commended for his patience in standing by Ole. And Ole rewarded that with Champions League football. But it’s all been for nought. The manager is on borrowed time – if history serves as a guide, it will be December or April, but if the month is wrong you can rest assured that he won’t be manager at the end of the season.
What a mess.
De Gea 4
Van De Beek 5