Phil Jones and Chris Smalling made their first starts of the season for Manchester United on Monday, with manager Jose Mourinho reacting to last week’s shambolic defeat to Brighton by completely changing his rearguard. Out went Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof and in came the English duo, alongside Ander Herrera in a back three.
The change worked for a half, but United fell apart in the second half as Jones and Smalling were at fault for three Tottenham goals in a 3-0 loss.
Tackles – 2
Clearances – 5
Interceptions – 1
Blocks – 1
Aerial duels won – 6/6
Tackles – 1
Clearances – 4
Interceptions – 2
Blocks – 0
Aerial duels won – 0/0
For a while, Jones and Smalling looked an instant improvement on Bailly and Lindelof. In the first half both added stability to United’s back line, with Smalling immaculate in the air and producing a couple of key tackles. Herrera’s presence alongside them helped, as well, as they contained Spurs’ attacking threat.
However, a second-half collapse saw Jones at fault for two goals in two minutes, then taken off for an injury, before Smalling – who had a good game otherwise – was beaten for Spurs’ third.
The lack of concentration from Manchester United's centre backs (apart from Smalling tonight) has been nothing short of embarrassing. Genuinely shocking.— Liam Canning (@LiamPaulCanning) August 27, 2018
Both defenders had solid first halves, with Smalling in particular putting in some excellent tackles. He looked assured during the first 45 minutes, as did Jones, as they kept Tottenham at bay.
Spurs barely had a sniff in the first half, largely because of United’s dominance in midfield but also because Smalling and Jones were resolute whenever their opponents threatened. It made the second-half collapse all the more painful to watch.
Jones was at fault for Spurs’ first goal, losing Harry Kane and giving him just enough space to plant a perfect header into the corner. The floodgates opened from there. He was partially at fault again a minute later, caught out of position as Spurs broke, leaving his defence at sixes and sevens to allow Lucas Moura to score.
Smalling actually had a good game overall, showing application that his fellow defenders lacked, but lost a one-on-one duel for Spurs’ third.
First time MUFC have conceded seven or more goals in the opening three league games for 49 years.— Andy Mitten (@AndyMitten) August 27, 2018
A good first half can’t make up for what transpired after the break, when Jones essentially cost United the game with two mistakes in two minutes. Making it more painful was the way Smalling was beaten for Spurs’ third.
The duo knew they were expected to be an improvement on Bailly and Lindelof, and for the first 45 minutes they seemed like they were. Ultimately, however, they showed how bare United’s defensive cupboard is.
RATING – 3/10
The promise of the first half dissolved into a nightmare at Old Trafford as Manchester United were blown apart in a counterattacking masterclass by Tottenham.
United had their moments before the break, with Romelu Lukaku missing a gaping net, but their defence was obliterated through the air and on the ground in the second half against Spurs.
Below are United’s ratings – and it makes grim reading for Red Devils fans.
MANCHESTER UNITED (4-3-2-1)
David De Gea – Faultless for goals, but awkward parry from a Kane shot nearly opened the door for Moura. Should he command defence more? 6
Antonio Valencia – Gave United buckets more energy on right over Darmian. Went walkabouts for great Alli chance, though. 6
Chris Smalling – Started well, including last-ditch tackle on Dele, until he was caught 10 yards up field for second goal. Burned by Moura for third. 4
Phil Jones – Could have given way penalty with a marginal call on Moura. Lost physical battle to Kane – and for Spurs’ opener. 3
Luke Shaw – Can’t be picked on by Mourinho at the moment. Some lung-busting runs down the left and neat touches. 7
Ander Herrera – Centre-back off the ball and everywhere when United were on it. Great tackle on Alli, but soft on Moura goal. 6
Nemanja Matic – Looked rusty on return to side. Was pinched possession from in first half – and luckily it didn’t lead to goal. 5
Fred – Showed a few more glimpses of what he could become for United with effervescent display. Had a couple of decent efforts. 7
Paul Pogba – When his team needed him after the two-goal sucker-punch, didn’t rise up. Where’s the World Cup winner? 4
Jesse Lingard – Played a key role in United’s urgent vibrancy, but as ever, doubts he has world-class guile as a No10. 6
Romelu Lukaku – Four shots and no goal, including the net at his mercy after rounding Lloris. This version of United needs a clinical striker. 4
Alexis Sanchez (for Herrera, 55′) – So much effort but such little payoff. Carries impression of man trying to do too much. 5
Victor Lindelof (for Jones, 58′) – Mind melt of a back pass and then all at sea marking Kane on corner, who should have scored. 3
Marouane Fellaini (for Matic, 61′) – Thrown on to make something happen. Aside from winning a few headers, didn’t. 5
A frustrating transfer window followed by a disastrous loss to Brighton last week has seen plenty of speculation surrounding Mourinho’s relationship with the club’s board, and especially that between him and executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward, who is in charge of transfers.
His relationship with star midfielder and newly-installed club captain Paul Pogba has also come under scrutiny after a media back-and-forth, which began with Mourinho’s less-than-effusive praise of the player following Pogba’s starring role in France’s World Cup triumph and continued into the first game of the season, when the Frenchman implied he wasn’t happy at the club.
A difficult start to the season for Manchester United promises to get even worse unless Jose Mourinho can inspire a reaction from his side against Tottenham Hotspur tonight. pic.twitter.com/CurlImYCEC— SuperSport (@SuperSportTV) August 27, 2018
All of this culminated in Mourinho’s terse press conference ahead of Monday’s clash against Tottenham, although he did take time to praise the United fans for their support over the season’s first two games.
“The supporters were fantastic in both matches,” said Mourinho. “Not for me, for the team which is the only thing that matters.
“In my career I was never selfish and thinking about myself, I was always a club man.
“That’s what I am. I am really happy when the supporters they support the team. Against Leicester, you can say in a normal situation because the team was playing well and was winning.
“But to be supportive of the team against Brighton, where we didn’t play well and lost the match, it gives you a fantastic feeling.
“I hope that feeling, the players also feel it and the players they are ready to give them everything they have.”
Other than that, however, Mourinho refused to be drawn on anything, including whether he was frustrated by the loss to Brighton, a result that followed several losses last season to the so-called lesser teams of the Premier League despite United usually playing well against fellow teams in the top six.
“No, it is not a frustration because it would also be a frustration if we win every match against the non top-six team and don’t win against the top six, that would also be a frustration,” he said.
“We want to win all the time. We want to play well all the time. We don’t want to make mistakes. That is what you always want.
“We want a winning style. Don’t make defensive mistakes. Be dominant. Chances, score goals and go home with the three points.”
Mourinho has not been happy with the media coverage of United in recent times, and thus didn’t take the bait when he was asked whether he was satisfied with his squad.
“You know my answer,” said Mourinho.
“I do not need to answer because I do not even know sometimes why I am here because you know everything.
“During the week it looks like you show that you know everything then I come here and you ask me questions. It’s a bit strange.”
The Portuguese shot down a question on Tottenham’s own transfer difficulties after a summer in which Spurs became the first team in Premier League history to make zero signings in the summer transfer window, snapping, “It is not my problem.”