Martial vindicates Mourinho with ruthless brilliance
You get the impression that these are the victories Jose Mourinho loves the most, the ones which stick deep in the craw of whatever young manager of the moment he sends packing, destined to spend the journey home staring out of the window wondering why, and how.
Manchester United won the game with a goal of park-football simplicity, executed with ruthless brilliance by Anthony Martial who converted Romelu Lukaku’s fine flick from a long ball down field from David de Gea.
A Tottenham Hotspur defence that had dominated United’s attack for 81 minutes went through a momentary loss of shape, and in those few seconds, Mourinho’s game-plan came together perfectly.
With his team denied the injured Harry Kane and unable to create the kind of chances they had done the previous weekend at Wembley, Mauricio Pochettino knew that this had been one of those afternoons when all the cards had fallen for Mourinho.
The Spurs manager reflected that this was always likely to be a game decided by “genius or a mistake and”, he added with regret, “it was us who made the mistake”.
Pochettino’s Spurs revolution has been about making his club strong enough that they can come to Old Trafford expecting victory, and yet against a Mourinho side, there is always the danger that an opponent’s weaknesses will be exploited.
Spurs were tidy and precise in midfield but never menacing and when the game opened up marginally in the second half, it was United who had the better chances. The winning goal will have been that much sweeter for Mourinho in that there were grumbles of doubt when he substituted Marcus Rashford on 70 minutes, a justified protest at the time given the sharpness of the teenager, who looked the most likely goalscorer for the home team.
There was no complaint at Martial coming on – he is a long-time favourite at Old Trafford – but perhaps a view that it should have been Lukaku making way.
The vindication for Mourinho came 11 minutes later when Lukaku, hitherto dominated by the excellent Toby Alderweireld, was granted the time and space to flick the ball masterfully into the path of Martial, who ran through and scored.
At the final whistle, Mourinho turned to the Sky touchline camera even before he had shaken Pochettino’s hand and put a finger to his lips to indicate his displeasure at the booing at the earlier Rashford decision.
He is not here to win popularity contests and his intolerance of dissenting voices borders on the dictatorial, with an equally powerful instinct to turn on those same people. “Some people speak too much. Calm down, relax a little bit,” he said afterwards. “Don’t speak too much. Relax.”
His need to be seen to be right is second only to the need to win, and it once again allowed Mourinho to position himself as a man working in sometimes intolerable conditions.
“I really don’t understand some reactions why [from the fans],” he said. “Are they Red Devils?”
At that point in the game, the United fans in question were watching a team who had not set out to dominate possession – in fact they only had 45 per cent of it. Instead, they pitted a fiveman defence against Spurs’ attack of Heung-min Son and Dele Alli and made sure that they kept the opposition out.
Rashford, often isolated, nevertheless looked United’s most explosive attacking force.
The victory took United two points behind Manchester City before their neighbours played their game and it means that Mourinho’s side go to Chelsea next Sunday having beaten one of the top six. Before this game, Mourinho had won just two of his past 11 against top-six opposition, and while this victory was not delivered with the swagger of old, it gives his side a much better platform going into the Champions League game against Benfica on Tuesday.
The first half featured a head-tohead between Ashley Young and Alli that went on longer than expected and began to look like it might be part of a concerted effort by United to get under the skin of the Spurs man. Alli was kicked later by Antonio Valencia when the United full-back could have got out of the way and for a while, it seemed like it might have affected Alli.
It was not as if United offered much more than stopping Spurs when they could and looking for the early ball over the away team’s high back line that might give Lukaku a run at goal.
If anything, it was Rashford’s pace and touch that looked much more likely to yield an opening, but United rarely got him away. The teenager chasing down a Spurs move with that electric pace of his was one of those rare moments in the first half when the home crowd’s excitement was sparked.
Spurs tried to work their way out of the United roadblock as quickly and effectively as they could, but it was heavy going. Mourinho had strewn obstacles in their path and to their credit, the three centre-halves, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Eric Bailly, were excellent, although Alli had a good header from a corner before the break that struck Eric Dier in front of goal.
While Spurs were industrious on the ball, they failed to create the chances in the second half to win the game. It was United who got in behind them at the start after the break through Henrikh Mkhitaryan, whose earlier shot had been spilled by Hugo Lloris. On both occasions, Spurs’ defence had managed to get the loose ball away from goal and they survived.
Their best chance fell to Alli, a ball lofted over the United defence by Christian Eriksen, who picked out the run of his team-mate perfectly. Alli’s touch could not steer the ball inside the post, a moment that Pochettino would later pick out as critical to the outcome.
“We could have been talking in a different way if Dele Alli scored as it was a clear chance, but unlucky for us and lucky for them,” he said, “it meant we lost the game.”
Mourinho’s complaints were directed elsewhere in the immediate aftermath, but, on reflection, he will regard this victory over the league’s brightest young coach as crucial – as much for how he is perceived by players and fans as how he sees himself.