Manchester United were outclassed on Wednesday evening in their 2-0 defeat against Tottenham Hotspur.
While the midfield and attack didn’t do enough to get United in the game, their defence took them out of it.
To concede after just 11 seconds is a good indication of how slow off the mark they were. Spurs started the game raring to go while United were on the back foot from kick-off.
Phil Jones lost out to Harry Kane for the first aerial challenge of the game, something Rio Ferdinand was very critical of in his role as a pundit for BT Sport. He stressed the importance of setting out your stall early on and Jones’ inability to show Kane who was boss set the tone for the evening. Kane may well have a couple of inches in height on the defender but Jones still needed to make his presence known better than he did, and maybe would have done if not caught off guard.
Chris Smalling allowed Dele Alli to flick the ball past him effortlessly, given how much room he had been given, before Ashley Young failed to close down Christian Eriksen.
After the game, Jose Mourinho was very critical of the defensive errors for the first goal, claiming they were well aware of how Spurs would start the game, yet still failed to do anything about it.
“After kickoff is ridiculous, especially ridiculous because the players they watched it before, we analyse opponents,” the manager said. “The players knew the long ball, they knew Harry Kane normally he is already inside, before the kickoff, he is already inside the opponent. We knew everything and then we don’t press the ball.”
If the first goal was bad, the second was even worse, with Jones again at fault. Kieran Trippier, who got the better of Young all evening, delivered a great cross in the box but it should have been dealt with easily by Jones. Instead of clearing the ball for a throw in with his left boot, he tried to kick it with his favoured right, and ended up firing it past David de Gea.
Jones had to know the cross was coming in so how he hadn’t managed to sort out his feet showed again United’s lackadaisical approach to defending.
Mourinho may well have been better off playing Marcos Rojo instead of Jones, as well as the pacey Luke Shaw instead of Young, yet that still doesn’t excuse the repeated errors the backline made throughout the game.
Tottenham played well and may have had more if not for Kane misfiring and De Gea making some decent stops, but United handed them the game.
Eric Bailly is United’s preferred central defender but the club still don’t have a player who is even equal to him, let alone better, to pair him with. The fact that he’s played just eight games from a possible 25 in the league this season certainly hasn’t helped United in their bid to chase down rivals Manchester City.
Three of the five most expensive defenders in the world play for City, with Eliaquim Mangala (currently out on loan) and Nicolas Otemendi featuring in the top 10.
In contrast, United have Jones and Smalling, who were tipped to be next Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, but have fallen well short. In the early days of their career there was the hope they could learn from the two world-class defenders ahead of them in pecking order, but it hasn’t worked out that way.
That’s not to say they aren’t capable of good games, or good periods even, but these stints are always cut short by injuries or spells of atrocious form. Every player has an off day but these two are like a comedy duo too often. Their decision-making and application is laughable at times and certainly won’t ever be the foundation of a team seriously challenging for the title.
Mourinho may well be looking for another midfielder in the summer but his priority should be two centre-halves. Jones and Smalling can make their way to Everton or Sunderland, where United usually put their has-beens out to pasture.
Smalling is 28 and has played close to 300 games for United, while Jones turns 26 in a few weeks and is approaching 200 appearances. The latter may be worth clinging on to for a further season as back-up but next season should mark the end of either player getting in United’s starting team.