By the end it had turned into a deeply chastening experience for Manchester United and not just because of the mere fact that for long spells Tottenham Hotspur outplayed, out-thought and out-fought them. That was one thing, but this defeat for José Mourinho’s team contained so many different subplots it was difficult to think of a more eccentric occasion under his management.
It was certainly difficult to make sense of a night in which Mourinho brought on Marouane Fellaini as a 63rd-minute substitute and then subjected his player to the ignominy of being hooked only seven minutes later, with Ander Herrera coming on instead. Mourinho did at least give Fellaini a semi-apologetic hug but it was still a remarkable moment on a night when United’s indecision on the pitch extended to their manager. Paul Pogba, the most expensive player in England, was substituted with almost half an hour to go and, ultimately, United never recovered from a diabolical first half in which Phil Jones scored a comical own goal and Christian Eriksen gave this thrilling, vibrant Spurs side the lead inside 11 seconds.
In the Premier League era there has been only one player to score a quicker goal and that was another Tottenham man – Ledley King, 10 seconds into a game against Bradford City in 2000. Eriksen’s effort was lagging some way behind the world record of 2.1 seconds – step forward Gavin Stokes in a match between Maryhill Juniors and Clydebank last year – but it would be difficult to think of another United game when their first touch of the ball has been to pick the ball out of their net.
Five Spurs players had touched the ball and the decisive one provided Eriksen with his 50th goal for the club. The first touch was from the kickoff and perhaps if the linesman had been more alert he would have noted that Harry Kane was encroaching in the United half when Mousa Dembélé turned the ball back to Jan Vertonghen. The next pass went long and when Kane won the header, putting down a marker by outjumping Jones in the process, Dele Alli could not get a clean connection with the first chance but Eriksen turned in the loose ball.
Jones’s night would rapidly become a personal ordeal and it must have been startling for Mourinho to see the way his entire team looked ill at ease when the players in white swarmed forward. Chris Smalling, in particular, seemed determined to share some of the blame and, as well as conceding two goals, United were fortunate during that calamitous first half not to concede a penalty within two minutes of Jones inadvertently turning Kieran Trippier’s low cross into his own net.
Antonio Valencia may have flicked a corner of the ball as he challenged Alli but the first contact as he dived in was to scythe down his opponent. The referee, Andre Marriner, gave the defender the benefit of the doubt and it was tempting to think that maybe Alli’s reputation for exaggerating these challenges had counted against him.
Mourinho was so unimpressed he stalked down the tunnel on the 43-minute mark to wait for his players in the dressing room. His early departure felt like a protest of sorts and involved missing yet another moment when Kane outdid Jones to make himself another shooting opportunity. It was the best 45-minute display from Spurs here since they beat Real Madrid in November and a thrilling way to introduce Lucas Moura, the club’s £25m recruit from Paris Saint-Germain, to his new team.
It would have been unrealistic, however, to expect the pattern of the game to continue being so one-sided and the interval gave Mourinho’s players the chance to shake their heads clear. They had a penalty appeal of their own early in the second half when Sánchez’s header came back off Son Heung-min’s arm and, not long afterwards, the game might have dramatically changed complexion had it not been for some splendid goalkeeping from Hugo Lloris to turn away Romelu Lukaku’s shot.
For the first time United seemed to have remembered they were supposed to be the second-best team in the league but then, just as quickly, Spurs regained the initiative and “olés” could be heard as the home side embarked on another period of superiority. Son had a golden chance to leave Kane with an open goal but decided to shoot instead. De Gea saved his team and that was the moment when Mourinho decided to remove Fellaini.
The Belgian went straight to the dressing rooms, removing his shirt as he went, and the important detail is that Mourinho’s changes did not actually improve his team. United’s only real period when they were threatening a revival came when Pogba was on the pitch and Spurs held out comfortably during the game’s final exchanges.