In the space of ten minutes, there it all was: two Tottenham goals, three Manchester United substitutions, the abandonment of an ambitious defensive strategy, the recurrence of old problems, the breaking of hoodoos. ‘You’re not special anymore,’ teased the Tottenham fans, as Jose Mourinho stood thunder-faced, but this was; special in so many ways.
Not, strangely, in terms of Tottenham’s performance. They can be much, much better than this, certainly in the first-half when they were largely ordinary.
But it was special performance in terms of what it represented. Just as victory over Borussia Dortmund at Wembley last year showed a club coming to terms with new surroundings – and probably just as well given this season’s circumstances – so this was a landmark result.
MATCH FACTS AND STATS
Man United (3-4-2-1): De Gea; Herrera (Alexis 55), Smalling, Jones (Lindelof 58); Valencia, Matic (Fellaini 61) Pogba, Shaw; Fred, Lingard; Lukaku
Unused subs: Grant, Young, McTominay, Rashford
Bookings: Herrera 19, Valencia 58
Tottenham (4-2-3-1): Lloris; Trippier (Aurier 76), Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Rose (Davies 82); Dier, Dembele; Lucas, Eriksen, Dele; Kane (Winks 88)
Unused subs: Vorm, Sanchez, Amos, Llorente
Goals: Kane 50, Lucas 52, 84
Bookings: Lucas 10, Kane 24, Rose 77.
Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham had not scored a goal or recorded a point at Old Trafford and suddenly they had two and were staring at three. It is 23 matches since a London club last won here – Tottenham too, on January 1, 2014, Emmanuel Adebayor the scorer – and Pochettino’s side have wilted under the pressure of expectation before, not least in last season’s FA Cup semi-final, which United won comfortably.
Yet this was different. Tottenham emerged after half-time with greater energy than in a listless opening 45 minutes and struck twice in two minutes to leave United reeling. The first goal was a reprise of an old England routine in the summer – the second a stroll as Mourinho’s defensive strategy fell apart.
It was a corner that gave Tottenham the lead, and familiar partners making it work. Kieran Trippier sent the ball in from the left, swinging in, Harry Kane battling with Phil Jones in the middle.
Jones is a sizable unit, an old-fashioned centre-half. Here, he got shrugged off like a rube. There was much pushing and pulling but Kane was better at it, smarter with it; by the time Trippier’s ball arrived, he was in space and his looping header defeated David De Gea.
Mourinho had played a back three including Ander Herrera in a new role and it had done well, but the experiment ended two minutes later. Christian Eriksen pulled off into space in which a bus could comfortably have turned and cut the ball back for Lucas Moura, arriving late, with a finish that left De Gea no chance.
At which point, Mourinho dismantled his team as comprehensively as Tottenham had done. Off came Herrera, than Jones – injured – finally defensive guard Nemanja Matic. Victor Lindelof was among those introduced, but his first contribution was a woeful back pass that would have given Dele Alli a goal, had De Gea not recovered magnificently.
He could do nothing about the third, though. Moura through again and Chris Smalling, the last member of the starting three on the field, missing his tackle as he skipped through to confidently defeat De Gea once more.
Old Trafford emptied, Tottenham rejoiced. Three games, three wins. United don’t look as if they can buy one right now – or a solution to this defensive crisis until January at the earliest.