And to think this was the game where we matched ourselves against one of the top four, when anything was possible. Three points and closing at kick-off, at full-time there was nothing left except a gaping gulf in class, United at their best, Spurs at their pitiful worst.
The match is over, except in my head. Ask me about the abiding image of this one, it’s of Spurs players staggering and stumbling like drunks on a weekend bender. Couldn’t keep the ball, couldn’t pass, couldn’t even stand up half the time. By the end, Kane was taking corners, presumably because it was the only way he could kick the ball without being tackled.
Let’s hoist last week’s concluding metaphor onto the rack and extract every last gasp. The switchback journey onwards became a nightmare ghost train packed with screaming kids, braying Tunbridge Wells stockbrokers on their mobiles and ipod users who don’t realise noise-reducing headphones are easily available on the internet and in the high street (at very reasonable prices I might add) that crashed into the buffers before the doors had barely closed. A couple of regular readers have kindly enquired as to whether the lateness of this column is because I could not face up to this abomination of a performance. Kind of you to enquire after my well-being – it’s actually because of a change in my work patterns but rest assured that I will keep spewing this stuff out albeit a bit late sometimes. But the first half was really one to watch from behind the sofa.
Twice this weekend I heard commentators refer to the ‘democracy’ of the Premier League. It is nothing of the sort of course. The top four is largely a closed shop unless you can afford to buy the privilege of entry to this VIP section of the club. What they meant was, most matches have a competitive edge and sides don’t give up until the match is out of sight. It’s rare that one side should dominate another as completely as United did on Sunday, and that’s before taking into account the fact that teams were separated by only two places. Spurs were eviscerated and none emerge from the slaughter with any credit.
Fact is, though, there was nothing new about the reasons underlying Spurs’ vulnerability. On Sunday Van Gaal exploited the weaknesses I’ve regularly written about: a lack of midfield protection for our full-backs, Dier’s inexperience and the fact that Mason and Bentaleb, strong when the ball is in front of them, are less effective if opponents get round the back. We know it all.
Spurs have been sussed. Our right side is being targeted – West Ham did the same. The only difference was LVG’s ruthlessness. Repeatedly he engineered three attackers versus two defenders, sometimes only one. Spurs were befuddled. Belatedly we tinkered with the set-up, with Bentaleb moving to the right of the defensive midfield pair, but the ordeal ended only when United took it easy in the second half.
If Gary Neville is doing the analysis on Sky, all blogging on the topic becomes irrelevant. Anyway, the first goal tells the whole story. Walker had gone wide to the touchline to mark up. I think that should be the midfielder’s job to cover with the full-backs tucking in as a compact back four, but at least he was marking someone, not always the case. Mason provided extra security by covering Fellani who had moved inside. But United had a third man out there who gained possession. Mason moved out, fatally leaving Fellani unsupervised. The Belgian ran through and scored.
This pattern was repeated for the next thirty minutes. Walker did not play at all well but without making excuses it was a collective failure. Townsend and Chadli, our two wide midfielders, do not defend effectively. Townsend’s contribution was to look worried. Frankly I expect a bit more. He suffered the indignity of being substituted before half time but switching Chadli, the worst defensive player in the team, to the right smacked of desperation and only made matters worse. Van Gaal has been heavily criticised for his tactics at United but he left Pochettino trailing in his dust.
As a result United were able to attack from several different angles. Mason and Bentaleb, one a good player the other potentially high class, are not naturally strong in our box, unlike, say, Sandro or even Capoue (remember him?) who are more comfortable defending. Sandro was admirably fearless plugging the gaps in the back four. How I miss him…
Anyway, the crosses came in from all angles. As much as possible, United tried to get Fellani on Dier. The young centre half did his best but was repeatedly beaten in the air. Again it’s something we know. He’s inexperienced and to be positive he has exceeded expectations so far. Surely we bought him as an investment to mature in two or three years time.
Bentaleb, rattled, committed an error that in other circumstances would have been catastrophic, a pass deep inside our half straight to an opponent, then goal. It’s just that there were similar cock-ups every few minutes, they scored from this one but there were plenty of others. We could not keep the ball at all. Kane was isolated and offered no respite, Eriksen disappeared. The tattered remnants of our pressing game merely left our men stranded upfield, leaving space for United in front of our back four.
Second half, United kicked off their shoes, picked their toenails, leisurely dip in the hot-tub, chilling until the final whistle. Towards the end we did actually get the ball in their box a couple of times. Adebayor appeared. That’s it.
It was dreadful. The players were uniformly disappointing but Pochettino had the real mare, out-thought tactically and slow to respond.
Nothing new – inexperienced teams show promise but are not known for consistency. The failure of expensive players leaves us exposed despite the laudable commitment of our promising young men. Not time to pick over the bones of the Bale money again, disappeared down the drain into the murky sewers, but how we needed an imposing figure at centre half at Old Trafford and Fazio has much to prove in that respect despite his experience and past achievements. That’s why we bought him.
Four home games left. Win those and see what happens. The top four? Do me a favour.