Same manager, similar players, same result. The familiar pattern recurred. Tottenham had a lead and Tottenham lost their lead and the result is that the gap to the top four is now six points.
It was the reverse turn of the matches in October – Leeds annoying Manchester City, West Ham outscoring Leicester, Aston Villa beating Liverpool – that made it seem like this was not going to be a normal season, Tottenham’s 6-1 win at Old Trafford even evoking the downright implausible thought that Spurs might be able to mount a title challenge. How long it seems now. All that remains to be decided, it seems, are the circumstances of José Mourinho’s departure, when it happens and the scale of his earnings.
It’s striking how different the vibe around Old Trafford is from Mourinho’s last season, in large part because of the personalities of the managers. Like a toxic Charlie Brown, Mourinho carries his personal cloud with him. At this point in his reign, his focus still seems to have shifted from getting results to making sure no one blames him for the results. In contrast, the name of Solskjær literally means sun. Whatever else you can say about him as a manager, he lifts the shadows.
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that he has become a better man-manager than Mourinho, which is demonstrated by the way he continues to rehabilitate Paul Pogba after another announcement from his agent that he wants to leave. Mourinho’s low attrition block may have ended up looking out of date, but at least as responsible for its decline has been how he seems – these days – to struggle to identify with the players. Gone are the shamanic character who was so attentive in his early years to every detail and nuance that he seemed to be able to predict the future, and in his place rose a grumpy director always looking for a stray student that he can blame for the school failures.
Still, Solskjær’s record this season is slightly worse than Mourinho’s in 2017-18: 2.03 points per game against 2.13 from Mourinho, 1.97 goals per game scored against 1.79 from Mourinho, 1.10 goals per game conceded against 0.74 from Mourinho. There may be enough green shoots of recovery to feel like this is a team starting to improve, but before today the only win over a top six team was the win over Manchester City, and many victories over lesser teams. were unconvincing scrambles by the odd purpose. The difference between this season and three years ago is the feeling that there is still room for improvement and the willingness to give the man in charge more time.
There was a danger that with two teams so dedicated to playing during the break it could end as the stalemate between United and Chelsea earlier in the season, when both sides were so determined to let the opposition come to them. and not to take risks. that the ball could just as easily have been left in the midpoint at kick-off as both teams sat in their own half and watched it. But it was never quite that: If the opening half hour was a tough time, it’s largely because neither side was good enough to escape the blame. tactics on the other.
But the game took on a life that seemed reluctant after 33 minutes, as Edinson Cavani seemed to have given United the advantage, only for referee Chris Kavanagh to decide, after looking at the video screen, to brush his fingers of Scott McTominay in Son Heung-min’s face as he walked away from him in the build-up was a foul. Mourinho condescendingly consoled Solskjær, a reminder of the virtuosity of the former; other gifts may desert him, but to false magnanimity, Mourinho remains a master.
And then, the most unexpected of events – not just a Spurs goal, but a light quality goal. Perhaps Victor Lindelöf helped by putting his feet in a tangle, but after Serge Aurier swept the ball forward, the interaction between Harry Kane, Lucas Moura and Son, which was still to be rolled the ball, was smooth and incisive. But it was also utterly incompatible with the deadlock toil of the rest of the game.
What happened next was much more predictable. For Spurs, taking the lead is like a character from Treasure Island passed the black dot. Their disappearance becomes inevitable. The pattern drawn against West Ham, Lask, Crystal Palace, Liverpool, Wolves, Fulham, Arsenal, Dinamo Zagreb and Newcastle was again followed.
As Spurs sat deeper, United began to play with ease and imagination. After a few decent blocks from Hugo Lloris, the equalizer came 12 minutes into the second half, with Fred hitting the rebound after Cavani’s effort was saved. Cavani, superb throughout, got the second with a diving header from the center of Mason Greenwood. He then faced off in his own position as Pogba attacked on a Spurs corner, but the game was not to be out of step with his fate and Greenwood added a third final.
And so Mourinho’s doomed spiral has taken another turn closer to the conclusion everyone suspects is coming.