At the start of the weekend Manchester United were nearly 9 points away from a top four position and 13 points away from the top. United in 6th were up against Pochettino’s men in 5th with a 6-point gap between the two sides that United could ill afford to have widen. After a gruelling and tightly contested 1-0 victory against Spurs, they’re still 13 points adrift of Chelsea, but the prospect of a top 4 position has improved after other results have gone their way over the weekend and they’e only 6 points from a Champions League berth.
Besides cutting the gap behind Spurs to just 3 points, Liverpool were held to a draw against West Ham, and Manchester City took a surprise beating at Leicester. A few key aspects of both United and Spurs’ teams were on full display during the match, and we’re going to break some of the down below.
1 – Spurs are struggling against the big teams
Tottenham had a fantastic season last time out when they competed for the league into the final few fixtures, but were ultimately pipped by Leicester’s momentum. One of their biggest strengths last year was that they were more than capable of beating any team in the league, even their closest competitors. This season, however, they’ve so far failed to replicate that necessary trend. They have now suffered losses against Manchester United and Chelsea, and also registered draws against Liverpool and Arsenal. Manchester City are the only other top 6 side they’ve managed a win against in the league. If they’re going to make a legitimate attempt at improving on last season’s position, their form against the top sides will need to drastically improve.
2 – Mourinho has transformed Phil Jones into an actual footballer
Perhaps more impressive than his phenomenal trophy haul in a success-laden career, has been Jose Mourinho’s seemingly divine ability to get decent performances out of Phil Jones. When Jones arrived at United from Blackburn Rovers in 2011, he was a promising teenage talent that many thought would become a top quality English defender. Unfortunately, as a result of lengthy injury spells and a lack of consistent game time his development stuttered to a halt at Old Trafford and his reputation has fallen to that of being an average player. Usually rather reckless in challenges and with a blatant disregard for his own safety, Jones’s performances have taken a turn for the better in his recent games where he’s shown remarkable composure. Rather than being a positional and decision-making liability, Jones has displayed good defensive habits and has helped United avoid defeats. At only 24 years of age, if he continues playing at this level he may yet deliver on the potential so many saw in him, but that will require him to avoid any long-term injuries.
3 – Paul Pogba still has a lot of developing to do
The world’s most expensive footballer has had a topsy-turvy adjustment period since his return to Manchester. While his undeniable talents have been on display for a few years he’s struggling to apply them to his new team. He’s been accused of trying to achieve too much on his own in a number of games this season, and the game against Spurs was no different. Instead of releasing a teammate into space, he prefers dribbling past his marker; instead of playing a pass with his first touch he often needs to carry the ball a few yards. His work rate against Spurs, and the free-kick that rattled the crossbar, were both impressive, but his decision-making still leaves something to be desired. Although he has contributed some great assists and goals so far this season, his overall performances need to become far more efficient and streamlined for him to be deemed good value for money.
4 – Danny Rose is possibly the best left-back in the league
Fullbacks that can balance their attacking and defensive contributions are rare commodities. Often a full-back will be a competent defender but will struggle to give his team an attacking outlet (see Matteo Darmian) or they’ll be confident going forward but will leave their team’s defensive line exposed (see Alberto Moreno). The best and most valuable fullbacks are the ones that can strike a comfortable balance, like Marcelo of Real Madrid or Dani Alves of Juventus. Danny Rose has shown since last season that he’s capable of both roles, having assisted and scored some goals while also being an integral part of Tottenham’s resilient defence. His importance to Pochettino’s defensive stability has led to his inclusion in the English national team, and in a season so far characterised by woeful defending from the top teams Rose has been a fantastic example of consistency.
5 – Henrikh Mkhitaryan may be United’s most valuable signing
United players have rallied behind Eric Bailly, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and the world’s most expensive footballer in Paul Pogba enthusiastically since the beginning of the season. For some reason, though, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, the Armenian attacking midfielder, had an incredibly quiet introduction to life in England. Up until this last week he made only a single start in the league. However, against Everton he started and had a decent game, but waited for the midweek Europa League game to give his best performance in a United shirt – followed by his game-winning goal against Spurs this weekend. It finally looks like the Bundesliga player of the year last season is settling into a rhythm, which may end up being vital for United’s season. United are clearly adept at defending, since they’ve avoided defeats admirably, but they’re struggling to put together dominant attacking displays. Mkhitaryan managed to rack up an astounding 19 goals and 24 assists in all competitions last season; if he can repeat some of that magic United’s hopes of getting into the Champions League spots may not be dead and buried quite yet.
United still have a difficult task of climbing into the top 4 spots, but, they showed promising signs against a robust and tough to beat Spurs side. If their defence holds up as it has and their attacking players develop a rhythm their performances and points-tally will only improve. Spurs were their toughest clash for the December period, can United go on a run, and can Spurs take advantage of a similarly manageable run to break into the top 4 themselves?