Manchester United vs Tottenham: Jose Mourinho’s nice guy act darkens as Spurs’ troubles laid bare

Mark Critchley
The Independent

Just as he has been ever since returning a fortnight ago, Jose Mourinho was on a charm offensive. He strode through the gates of Old Trafford’s players’ entrance and made a beeline for the nearest security guard, clasping hands and exchanging grins. He then greeted another security guard, a match co-ordinator working for the Premier League, and yet another security guard who he had briefly left hanging. And shortly after, he found Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, greeting him with a clasp of the face and an ever-so-slightly condescending pat on the back of the head.

This is the new Mourinho, the re-energised Mourinho, the Mourinho looking to build bridges, desperate to prove he has changed. It was the Mourinho who now resembles one of those motivational Instagram accounts, misattributing quotations to historical figures and celebrities in his press conferences, insisting that the world is actually fine if you just think positively and are nice to people. Who knows? Maybe he means it this time. Yeah, maybe.

But you imagine that after suffering his first defeat as the new manager of Tottenham Hotspur, that sunny disposition will darken. There is no piece of Nelson Mandela wisdom that can easily explain this strangely limp Tottenham performance, no Kobe Bryant quip that can cover for the harsh reality that this squad - as much Mourinho claims to believe in it - has some clear, gaping holes.

This was always likely to be a battle of two burning wreckages and though Mourinho’s arrival appeared to douse the flames in north London, defeat to a side as limited as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s United showed that he has plenty of work left to do. Tonight is not the night to criticise United though, given that they turned in their most impressive performance of the season to date precisely when their manager needed it.

This is a monumental week for Solskjaer, one which started badly with Sunday’s draw against Aston Villa and could end worse with Saturday’s Etihad Manchester derby. Yet his side have a knack of saving their best performances for the biggest opponents and these three points will buy him a significant amount of time, barring an absolute mauling against Manchester City. The spectre of Mauricio Pochettino still hangs over Old Trafford, though does not haunt Solskjaer as much as it did this morning.

Pochettino’s ghost has not been entirely expunged from Tottenham either. Here was a reminder that their woeful start to this Premier League campaign - and their dismal end to the last one - was not solely the manager’s fault. Questions remain about the players that were at his disposal and must take responsibility for their underachievement. The squad is still a talented one, not far off the quality of City and Liverpool, but Tottenham’s limitations in both defence and midfield were laid bare here.

The lack of a reliable right-back continues to be an issue. Serge Aurier made a decent impression in Mourinho’s first three games and was not disastrous here either but, given that he is the one trusted to drive Tottenham forward from the back, his final delivery needs to improve. On several occasions, crosses went over the heads of every player in the penalty area or safely into David de Gea’s hands. His sense of adventure also left Tottenham exposed at times, but he should have been able to count on protection in midfield.

Jose Mourinho tasted defeat for the first time as Tottenham manager (Reuters)
Jose Mourinho tasted defeat for the first time as Tottenham manager (Reuters)

That was where Tottenham lost this game, where the pairing of Moussa Sissoko and Harry Winks failed to exert any control over proceedings. And Sissoko, of course, conceded the crucial penalty. Eric Dier’s reputation has taken a hefty hit over the last few years, but Tottenham missed his presence. Fred has rarely, if ever, had as much time and space to show why his employers paid north of £50m for his services two summers ago. This was his best display for United.

Despite his smiles, laughs and grins, despite the stunts with ball-boys and buttering up to journalists, Mourinho will be aware that this squad still needs work and this club needs still whipping into shape if it is to maximise its potential. That will require a certain devilment and a particular ruthlessness. Forget the carrot, it’s time for the stick. At full time, Solskjaer returned to favour and celebrated United’s victory by patting Mourinho on the head. And with that, you imagine, there will be no more Mr Nice Jose.

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