What time are we playing? Are we at home or away? Each matchday during the Great Pandemic Lockout tends to blend into the next as the season draws to its conclusion, with none of the defining characteristics of a particular home game or a trip away to bookmark the 90 minutes. Switch on, settle down, assume the receive position. It’s all so routine, but we cling on to the contact because it’s all we’ve got.
For Spurs fans, the routine nature of watching football under lockdown is further underlined by the routine nature of what unfolds. Same coach. Same old story. Here’s how it goes.
Select a back four that baffles but that is assembled from the four defenders you haven’t fallen out with this week. Provide a glimmer of hope with some early, well-worked, attacking play. If you manage to go ahead, sit back and invite pressure until the inevitable mistake. Make a defensive substitution in case the invitation for the opposition to attack isn’t clear enough. If you concede a goal, adopt a more defensive approach. Concede again. Bring on Bale for about five minutes. Go to press conference. Either throw players under a bus or confect a controversy that deflects any questions about your apparent inability to coach the players at your disposal.
Jose Mourinho is certainly box office. Because here we are talking about him again. Which keeps the Once Special One happy at least. But here are the hard facts behind the publicity games. Mourinho was brought in to do a better job with the squad that existed than his predecessor. Mourinho said the squad he inherited was good enough. Mourinho then added to that squad with his own signings. And the result is a squad that clearly isn’t doing as well as it was and that is punching well below its weight.
The defence looks unsettled and nervous. Creativity in midfield is thin. Or on the bench. And the attacking unit looks increasingly short of ideas. Rerunning the tiresome Pochettino or Mourinho argument is irrelevant. Mourinho is here now and he was hired to improve things. Not only has he not improved things, the evidence we are seeing in game after game is that things are the opposite of improving. This is a group of players stripped of belief and confidence. This is a coach seemingly unable to coach.
Too harsh? That conclusion can be drawn from his own words. He has said he cannot make the players listen to him. That is literally his job. His extremely well-remunerated job. It’s a conclusion that can be drawn from the apparent reverse Midas touch of his half-time talks, which seem to turn encouraging signs into yet another fear-filled, error-strewn performance.
Spurs started bright enough but without really creating chances. Manchester United appeared not totally aware the game had started. Controversy was sparked when United appeared to go ahead, but had a goal chalked off after Scott McTominay was adjudged to have fouled Son Heung Min in the build-up. The saloon bar professors in the Sky studio decided the decision was evidence that things ain’t what they used to be, the game’s gone, etc etc.
Having never played football professionally, who am I to say that the actual rule says that it was a foul?
Still, at least it gave Mourinho the opportunity to avoid difficult questions about his own approach at the post-match press conference by walking out in the wake of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s ill-advised comments.
Spurs took the lead with a well-worked goal, Lucas Moura — still underrated by many Spurs fans — setting up Sonny. But, once again, they didn’t capitalise. As the second half began, United stepped up a gear, showing their coach at least is able to communicate. What followed was as predictably depressing as it was depressingly predictable.
Judgements can, and often are, made too quickly in football. The trick is to know how to identify the underlying trends. The pattern that unfolded in this game has been seen so many times by Spurs fans this season. This is a team without belief, playing with fear, and with the talents of one of the greatest strikers in a generation being wasted. The saddest thing of all is that so much joy and passion has been sucked from the experience of supporting this team that resignation is as common a response as rage.