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Another humbling afternoon as Manchester United’s Premier League season took another hit as it drifts towards a largely unsatisfactory conclusion. Despite sustained periods of controlled possession the Reds failed to truly threaten the home side, and a blistering six minutes in the second half took the game away from Louis van Gaal’s side.
There were few positives on show as United’s chances of a Champions League place next season dwindled further; here are five things we learned from defeat to Mauricio Pochettino’s side.
1) Full-back Future?
Ever since Luke Shaw’s unfortunate injury (he was arguably United’s best player at the time) finding real quality in the full-back areas has been a concern. Matteo Darmian began the season very well but has faded badly and Marcos Rojo continues to look uncomfortable at best on the left.
On Sunday, however, Timothy Fosu-Mensah produced a tenacious and accomplished display at right-back that gave great cause for optimism. Admittedly, most see the young Dutchman playing more centrally, whether that’s at centre-half or in a deep lying midfield role, but before an untimely injury he demonstrated what the Reds have been missing at full-back all season.
2) One-man Martial
Not for the first time this season the only man who looked likely to provide a threat was Anthony Martial. The young Frenchman continues to excel in his debut campaign despite the pressure of his price tag and a struggling team around him.
Having beaten 3 defenders all on his own, had he shown more composure with the match goalless things may well have turned out differently. Nevertheless, it would be grossly misguided to place any blame on a player who at the moment seemingly carries the Reds’ attacking threat on his shoulders. With change almost certain in the summer, it is hoped that Martial will flourish even further with better players around him next season.
3) Chance would be a Fine Thing
It’s been a hallmark of the Van Gaal era that Manchester United control possession for large periods but fail to create any chances. On Sunday at White Hart Lane the Reds only managed one shot on target, a solo effort from Anthony Martial created solely by himself. Results are always paramount and away in North London a defensive structure can be forgiven, but scoring goals remains a big problem.
Having such a disjointed line-up never helps, of course, and the manager’s decision to play Ashley Young up front remains baffling. With Juan Mata also out of position on the right wing and being forced to spend the majority of his time tracking back it’s no wonder the Reds looked disjointed and devoid of creativity moving forwards. If the Old Trafford outfit are to salvage anything from this season Louis van Gaal will need to discover a better balance very quickly.
4) Individual Identity Breeding Collective Concerns
It’s often said that the key to management is to deploy a system that gets the best out of the players you’ve got or bring in players to get the best out of your system. Unfortunately, for some time now Manchester United have done neither. Players are constantly played out of position, there is very little cohesion or identity and Sunday was no different.
The biggest problem, however, is that you could point to so many individuals in Manchester United’s squad and not really be able to determine what their biggest strength is on the pitch or the identity of the way they like to play. Jesse Lingard, for example, talented as he may be, lacks a clear identity as to where he should be playing and how he should be playing. At the moment, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what he does apart from buzzing around the pitch with youthful exuberance. The same could be said for a number of other players and if things are to improve on the pitch strategy must improve off it.
5) Fall from Grace
There is no doubt that one thing was evident on Sunday, Tottenham Hotspur were the better side. It’s a humbling statement to make but on and off the pitch the side from White Hart Lane have excelled in recent years where United have floundered.
Sir Alex Ferguson once famously told the players that it was only Tottenham, implying they were pushovers, but regrettably the tables have now turned. Manchester United look a soft touch devoid of ideas and it appears as though the manager has lost the majority of the dressing room. The FA Cup remains the last hope in a disappointing season but even if the club win that they should be planning for change.