Spurs spank Man United, Bournemouth stuns Chelsea, and the top-four race is on

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Tottenham celebrates <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/soccer/players/christian-eriksen/" data-ylk="slk:Christian Eriksen">Christian Eriksen</a>’s opening-minute goal against <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/soccer/teams/manchester-united/" data-ylk="slk:Manchester United">Manchester United</a> on Wednesday. (Getty)
Tottenham celebrates Christian Eriksen’s opening-minute goal against Manchester United on Wednesday. (Getty)

If there is a lasting image from the most consequential evening of Tottenham’s Premier League season thus far, there is no doubt about the direction in which that image is moving.

There’s no single snapshot. No single moment. But there was a pattern. A pattern flowing toward Manchester United’s goal, with Tottenham attackers impeded only by a few scrambling Red Devils. It repeated itself on an endless loop that had Jose Mourinho shaking his head in exasperation midway through the second half.

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From the very first second of a clash that could have significant implications come May, Spurs sprinted past a disorganized and therefore overwhelmed United. They scored two, but easily could have had four or five. They exploited United’s flaws, which were as apparent as ever. They bagged a convincing 2-0 victory.

And with a little help from Bournemouth at Stamford Bridge, they blew open a top-four race that, heading into the day, very easily could have closed up around four teams.

Tottenham narrowed the gap between second place and fifth to five points, and the gap between fourth and fifth to two. They announced themselves as a major player in the battle for three available Champions League spots as the late-winter grind begins.

With Chelsea stunned by Bournemouth, 3-0 at home, the race is handicapped in an enticing way. Spurs, still in fifth on 48 points, might be the best of the four contenders below Manchester City. Chelsea and Liverpool, wedged in the middle on 50 points, are surely the two most inconsistent. And United, still with a three-point edge in second, might be the worst of the four.

United made the most noise in January with the signing of Alexis Sanchez. But Sanchez won’t solve its problems. He might even exacerbate them. United’s midfield is remarkably fractured and lacking. The disconnect between the 2 and 3 of the 4-2-3-1 is startling. It’s unprecedented for a Jose Mourinho-coached team. And it’s the main reason United hasn’t pulled away in second place.

The aforementioned lasting image, of red- and white-clad players both streaming toward David De Gea’s goal, invariably featured Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic out of position. It featured them trailing Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen and Heung-Min Son.

Spurs danced around those two, and around the three-man attacking midfield line of Sanchez, Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial. None of these three take on much defensive responsibility. As a result, United’s pressure on the ball in midfield was completely non-existent.

Mourinho pleaded with his players on the sideline. But there was nothing he could do. His failures have come in training. There was nothing he could do to reverse them under the Wembley floodlights.

And at the end of a night that could have seen the Red Devils jump six points clear of third place, and 11 points clear of fifth, they still have plenty of work to do. So does Mourinho. So do his players. Because their problems are real. They aren’t going anywhere. And they’ve dragged United back down into a true top-four scrap.

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer, and occasionally other ball games, for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.

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