Soporific Spurs had Hugo Lloris to thank for only losing 2-0 at Old Trafford after a fizzing and energetic performance from Erik Ten Hag’s improving Manchester United. This time, Spurs definitely didn’t lose to Cristiano Ronaldo.
1. The calamitous nature of Spurs’ performance on a night when the Tory Party was collapsing in on itself in Westminster sort of demands a website like ours attempts some kind of amusing pulling together of these two strands, but we’re too exhausted to bother. So just imagine we did something like that here. It would go a bit like “an incoherent performance with baffling tactics that appeared to play perfectly into the oppositions’ hands, but enough about the Tory Party…” except, you know, less shit. Or more shit. Whichever’s funnier. Your expectations were confounded, and from thence the humour arose.
This by the way is comfortably the worst first conclusion in the long and mixed history of 16 Conclusions but we’ll say this: it’s still better than anything 10 of Spurs’ starting XI managed tonight so… alright?
2. “We didn’t lose against United, we lost against Cristiano Ronaldo.” That was Antonio Conte’s verdict before this game when asked about his last trip here with Tottenham in March, when a Ronaldo hat-trick condemned Spurs to a 3-2 defeat. It was pithy and reductive stuff from Conte, but not wrong: Spurs were much better that night and gave as good as they got in a game that could absolutely have ended differently. There was no Ronaldo tonight, and Spurs were outplayed in every conceivable way, individually and collectively, by a United team with better skill, better energy and a better plan. Tonight, Spurs definitely lost against United.
3. But as bad as Spurs/The Tories were, United were absolutely excellent. They’ve now beaten Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham in the early stages of Erik Ten Hag’s increasingly encouraging rebuild and this was comfortably the most complete and compelling performance of the lot. It was total domination almost from first to last, with Spurs (their outfield players at least) having absolutely no answer to United’s speed, intensity and movement.
4. Before the half-hour mark, United had racked up 16 shots. That was already more than in any other Ten Hag Premier League game. By half-time that number was 19. We all know Antonio Conte sets his side up to cede possession and territory in these games and look to hit on the counter, but not like this. Not to this absurd extreme. United gratefully accepted the ball Spurs were willing to let them have, and had a great deal of fun with their often total possession of it. It is true that in isolation only one of United’s chances in that inexplicably goalless first half could be described as clear-cut – when Marcus Rashford got in behind Eric Dier and forced one of many fine saves out of Hugo Lloris – but clearly the sheer number of shots raining down on goal left this outside the scope of Conte’s plan. Having a plan to concede only low-percentage, minimal xG chances is fine, but the maths as well as everyone and everything else is soon against you if there’s a shot every two minutes.
5. And yet, however poor Spurs were in the first half it was still at least possible to identify the gameplan if you squinted a bit. United’s shots were mainly from distance, even if they were alarming in number. Spurs did show the tiniest glimpses of counter-attacking threat, usually via those raking quarterback passes to the right Harry Kane likes delivering so much. Kane himself shot straight at De Gea with what could have been a classic counterpunching smash and grab late in the half, and it left Spurs ahead on shots from inside the box at that stage by four to three. It was still bad, but it was at least bad within normal parameters.
6. The second half was far, far worse. And also far worse than anything in the Chelsea or Arsenal away games this season where Spurs had also been thoroughly outplayed. The catalogue of errors that ended with a shot from distance spinning into the bottom corner via Ben Davies’ outstretched foot was mortifying. And it meant that, just as at Arsenal, Spurs had managed to scramble somewhat fortunately to half-time in a big away game with the scores level only to piss it all away in the opening minutes of the second half. But at least it proved why you can’t just keep letting the opposition shoot from 20 yards. If you let Fred throw enough balls at enough coconuts, eventually he will win a goldfish.
7. The goal had an air of good fortune about it, clearly. Fred didn’t approach the ball with any great confidence or strike it cleanly. But it was deserved reward for an exceptional performance. United’s attacking play most obviously caught the eye, with Bruno Fernandes taking 90-minute ownership of assorted Pockets Of Space, Jadon Sancho menacing, Antony always looking like an absolute baller despite making Erik Lamela look two-footed and Diogo Dalot giving a very, very old-looking Ivan Perisic a miserable evening, but the way Spurs got absolutely nothing out of United’s defence might actually be of greater long-term significance. Fred and Casemiro in front of Lisandro Martinez and Raphael Varane provided an absolute rock-solid formation on which everything United did was built, and there was certainly no sense of that more defence-minded midfield combination having any kind of limiting effect on United’s attacking offerings.
8. Bruno was great, though. He’s a lovely, terrifying footballer on nights like this when the mood takes him and game seems to bend around him. Spurs had three centre-backs and three central midfielders on the pitch and not one of them ever truly had a handle on the Portuguese or appeared keen to take ownership of that issue. He spent the whole evening in often minuscule gaps between them and from one such position finally got himself a second goal that had long appeared inevitable but which you did fear United always needed to avoid Spurs doing something spectacularly undeserved to banter them off as they had done to Chelsea earlier in the season.
9. One United player didn’t seem to be having as much fun as the rest, though. Cristiano Ronaldo watched a dominant masterclass from the bench and headed for the tunnel minutes before the final whistle. It means little but it looked crap and gave Ten Hag a hassle he didn’t need or deserve on what was his best night in the job.
10. This was a result that ignites what could be an epic battle for the top four this season. Spurs were, as you will by now have gathered, unconscionably bad here; but we know already that this doesn’t always stop them scooping up loads of points. United are clearly now going to be involved, while Liverpool have remembered they are really good. Chelsea dropping points at Brentford keeps everyone on their toes, but with Manchester City being Manchester City and Arsenal crushing all in their path it already looks like four teams and perhaps maybe even Newcastle depending on what January might bring are fighting for two spots.
11. And that makes the nature of this defeat particularly damaging for Spurs. The league table shows you they could afford to lose this game, but they couldn’t really afford this sort of non-effort of a defeat. If they were a racehorse you’d almost be tempted to call them a non-trier. There has been a nagging doubt about Spurs all season and the only thing that was clear was that either results or performances were wildly misleading. Nights like this suggest it’s the results rather than performances that are more likely to revert to the mean. With a decent performance tonight – even in defeat – you could still be optimistic about Spurs and note that they’ve now already played three of the Big Six away from home inside the first 11 games of the season and still sit third in the table. Which is good. After that performance, the more relevant fact looks to be that six of the seven teams they’ve actually beaten this season are in the bottom half and four of them are in the bottom four. Which is bad. Look, I’m sure it will all look very different again after a Harry Kane penalty and an Eric Dier header secure a 2-0 win at the weekend. But this really was eye-meltingly bad and could leave nasty scars.
12. I’ve gone through this in my head and I think it’s possible that all 10 Spurs outfield players had their worst ever game for the club tonight. Cristian Romero definitely did. Rodrigo Bentancur absolutely did. Ivan Perisic probably did. Eric Dier certainly had his worst since his Conte-era rejuvenation really kicked in. Son Heung-min has been struggling this season but could until now at least trap a ball and occasionally pass five yards to a team-mate even if the usual casual brilliance of his finishing had been temporarily lost. Even Kane’s ability to hold up play and bring others into the game disappeared after those early glimpses. The manager and his tactics will get plenty of stick and fair enough – it was certainly extraordinary that the entire starting XI remained in situ without so much as a formation tweak for 77 minutes (i.e. until it was far, far too late and the game was long gone) – but faced with a performance like that there is only so much a manager can do.
13. He did make mistakes, though. Conte had made his reluctance to switch to 3-5-2 pretty clear, but given the opposition and the resources available it was the correct decision. But the mistakes were not so much in the identity of the XI selected tonight as the familiarity of it. Lloris, Dier, Kane and Hojbjerg have all played at least 975 of Spurs’ 990 Premier League minutes this season. Bentancur and Son are well past 850 minutes, and Dejan Kulusevski and Emerson Royal would be too but for injury and suspension. All those players have been heavily involved in the Champions League as well. In this most demanding of seasons, Conte is increasingly reliant on players within an ever smaller circle of trust and seems steadfastly unwilling to put any faith in those outside it. Nobody is going to get anywhere with 14 players in this campaign and, despite their apparent bench strength, Spurs are not far off that at the moment in real terms. January reinforcements will no doubt arrive, and Spurs will hope they are as effective as this year’s pair, but that’s a long time off still. We can’t say for sure that exhaustion is a factor in Spurs’ drab and leggy performance, but it would appear to be a reasonable assumption.
14. Let’s have one whole conclusion on something for Spurs that wasn’t a complete shitshow. Hugo Lloris was bloody brilliant. That is genuinely significant, because as fine a keeper as he’s been for over a decade at this club now, his biggest struggles have too often been reserved for the biggest nights. His early unconvincingly fumbled save when caught out of position when the ball broke for Antony to shoot from distance was not a good omen and plenty of Spurs fans will have got the dread at that moment. With specific regard to Lloris at least, they need not have worried. While many of his saves were largely regulation and often appeared slightly embellished for the cameras he made extraordinary saves in each half to deny Rashford and kept the scoreline civilised. Blameless for both goals, his unerring performance was only made more impressive by the fact he was forced to spend every moment he wasn’t pulling saves out of his arse watching the Spurs players in front of him shamble about so cluelessly. Also, we told you so.
15. No matter how swimmingly everything was going for Ten Hag and United, he wouldn’t be human if he didn’t have a little wobble at the sight of Lucas Moura coming on. Ten Hag’s side were in complete control and had a seemingly impenetrable lead over a Spurs side with absolutely no energy and fewer ideas. Ten Hag and Moura had been here before, but this time there really was no cause for alarm.
16. Lads, it’s Tottenham.