The scoreline might have made it look worse than it was, but Manchester United had a loss of this proportion coming, and need to wake up before its too late. Their rivals are slowly speeding out of sight.
Defeats are complicated. Some, like the aftermath of a failed conquest, leave you broken, some, heavy-hearted for how much a victory would’ve meant, and some, like the one at Old Trafford on Monday night, feel like a punch to the chest from Hercules himself. Tottenham are not supposed to beat Manchester United, definitely not at Old Trafford, most certainly not 3-0.
As the game drew to a close, the cameras inevitably panned to Jose Mourinho. There he was, egging his players on, patting them on their backs, lifting their drooping heads, and then in one long, glorious crescendo of emotional defiance, he exchanged a full minute of applause with the Stretford End before disappearing into the tunnels. It was a moment for the ages. The United faithful were relentless in their support even in the face of a crushing loss, singing Jose’s and Pogba’s and De Gea’s names loud enough for decibel levels to be forced down on television sets in India.
Football fandom is complex too, barbaric when it comes to defending home colours, rock-solid in support of players and manager and yet, disenchanted and resentful if the club or its representatives tug at the strings of their patience for too long. There remains a certain honour in standing by your beloved club during times of distress, but it now works within a tighter threshold. Match tickets cost a small fortune, and it will be naive to expect a younger generation to stand tall and watch their team touch newer depths while their own bank balance slowly depletes. If elite football has turned into an industry, the manifestation has come through increased ticket prices and decreased patience.
Yet, could you ask even the most battle-hardened of supporters for more patience with a team and manager who move further away from the leading pack with every week? It wasn’t the scoreline that would’ve rankled fans as they walked away from Old Trafford, or turned off their televisions to retire into the night, but the sheer air of inevitability around Spurs emerging stronger. It’s worth pondering if the cheering at the end of the match was borne more out of resignation than hope and inspiration.
Tottenham, mind, haven’t invested in a single new signing this summer, and currently present the image of a team in complete harmony with the manager and his vision. They lack the lustre of medals in their cupboard that seems to form the modern barometer for credibility as a team, but their challenge as one of the strongest in England wouldn’t pass many keen observers by. There is an assurance in their pressing, passing and movement that red-tinted fans on Monday would’ve looked at wistfully.
To be fair to Manchester United and Mourinho, they weren’t quite annihilated like the scoreline might suggest. They had chances, especially in a frantic, yet erratic, first half, that players of the pedigree of Lukaku and Pogba should’ve buried. The former’s miss from a Danny Rose error, with an open goal gaping, came at a juncture where a lead for United would’ve completely changed the dynamic of the game. Romelu Lukaku is a lot of things, most of them great, but ruthless isn’t one of them. If he has to spearhead United’s challenge for silverware, he will have to build the cold-blooded instinct that his boyhood idol, Didier Drogba, had in such abundance.
The second half was a different story. Tottenham came reinvigorated, and suddenly, in a sight that has become ever so familiar with the current United team, there were country-sized empty spaces in the middle of the pitch. Players like Kane, Alli, and Lucas Moura rarely need second invitations, and United’s backline went to the extent of spreading a red carpet for them to walk on and punish mistakes. When the summer started, the loudest rumors coming from Sir Matt Busby way were around the acquisitions of Harry Maguire or Toby Alderweireld, or indeed, both. On Monday, we were given a very clear exhibition of why.
For fans beyond a certain age, it must be painful to watch a Manchester United defence look so out of depth. Between Jones, Smalling and Lindelof, it seemed like an error was no more than a shoulder push away. Rio Ferdinand is a television pundit these days, and one wonders if he could’ve been much worse if he put on a United kit and showed up on the pitch last night. After David De Gea had to make a terrific save to deny Alli from a Lindelof back pass, exasperation finally took over Jose Mourinho and he threw open his arms and kicked a nearby grill door. He has modeled himself on Helenio Herrera, and to see his own defenders look like they’ve never played pro football before, for two weeks in a row, would’ve contributed to most of the ire that fueled his fiery post-match press conference.
The phenomenon of Mourinho in his third season at a club doesn’t need an introduction or reminder. Every defeat, every low ebb will invariably get attributed to it too. However, his previous “third season” implosions came at Chelsea and Real Madrid, clubs reknowned for their volatility with managers. Sandwiched between them, a two-year stint at Inter Milan, where he came as a Barcelona reject, and left as a demi-god. At Manchester United, even with a board who don’t share the same acumen or love for football that their predecessors did, Mourinho enjoys a certain security. And yet, he’ll be pushing his luck if the results don’t start showing soon. Two seasons is enough time to inculcate a style or natural fluidity. Besides, a squad which boasts of Lukaku, Martial, Sanchez, Pogba, Mata, Matic, Bailly, and De Gea shouldn’t have to grovel like they have for so long now.
There is a lot that’s worrying for Manchester United right now. The players seem bereft of ideas, their manager is picking the wrong battles, and their board is ferociously against making a decision that won’t yield long-term financial profits. Monday night’s match against Tottenham, even with its inevitability of result, should be taken as a body blow, and not a slip. If the club convinces itself of the latter, then I’m afraid, there are greater depths in store.