United out to spoil Spurs’ party as season’s end draws near
After 118 years Tottenham Hotspur prepares to say goodbye to White Hart Lane. The century has not aged the old ground well, with Spurs’ facilities outdated and other clubs moving ahead. It is testament to Mauricio Pochettino’s talent as a manager that he has taken the Lillywhites to second on the Premier League’s sixth largest budget. José Mourinho might typically be out to spoil the party, but with the Manchester United manager has long since prioritised winning the Europa League. It might not be a scratch team on Sunday, but it is likely to be far from full strength.
Still, momentum counts for something and United has lost much in recent weeks. Despite that long unbeaten league run – 25 matches until defeat came at the Emirates last weekend – Mourinho’s side has not progressed in the league. Too many draws, too few risks taken, too much caution.
"Momentum counts for something and United has lost much. Despite that long unbeaten league run, Mourinho’s side has not progressed. Too many draws, too few risks taken, too much caution."
In recent matches United rode out a soulless stalemate at Manchester City, seemingly holding no ambition to win the game, despite what it might do for the club’s league position. Then came the home draw against Swansea City, yet another at Old Trafford, although this time Mourinho’s side was far from unlucky in dropping more points. In the past week United’s form dipped further, with defeat at the Emirates comprehensive, while the Reds were one John Guidetti side footer away from being eliminated in the Europa League.
This, it seems, is a team on the defensive, afraid to lose, and suffering burnout after a 60 plus game campaign. Indeed, injuries and United’s heavy schedule in March, April and May have certainly had an impact, but it Mourinho’s decision to retrench into a more defensive mentality that is most worrying.
On Thursday, against a mediocre Celta Vigo outfit, United conceded more than 60 per cent possession, and Mourinho’s side was reduced to desperately holding out for a draw by the end. It was some way from entertainment, let alone the mythological United way that the manager has long since abandoned. That mantra, it seems, is being furnished by Sunday’s hosts far more than United.
Yet, the Portuguese manager can point to a Community Shield won, victory in the League Cup, and a Europa League final in Stockholm. Should United beat Ajax on 24 May, Mourinho will end his first campaign with two major pieces of silverware and a place in the Champions League. Not bad at all, but – with admitted counter-intuition – perhaps no more than satisfactory either given the way it is apparently being achieved. There is much to do in the summer.
This is also why momentum counts. Mourinho is certain to rest players over the next three matches; he has promised an under-23 side against Crystal Palace next weekend. If fourth is not within reach by then, it will be the right approach. If Liverpool loses in the early kick-off on Sunday then Mourinho will have a big call to make, although the United manager is highly likely to make plenty of changes either way. Few can be surprised if the strategy brings more defeats over the next week.
That’s a pattern that can become hard to shed.
Pochettino has built a fine attacking side very much in the Spurs’ tradition. This time, of course, the team is much less ‘Spursy’ than in the past and is probably only a couple of high-class signings away from making a better shot of challenging for the title. Whether Tottenham can sustain a medium-term challenge given the new stadium’s £750 million cost is a question for the future, although the Premier League’s vast revenue generation puts the club in a stronger spending position than when Arsenal built the Emirates a decade ago.
In the short-term Sunday will be replete with nostalgia as the club plans for a farewell ceremony before kick-off. That might not have the positive impact on the team that the home support may imagine. Despite Chelsea securing the Premier League title on Friday, there will be plenty of pressure on Spurs to emerge victorious. Pochettino will want that too and his side has won 16 games in a row at White Hart Lane.
“It will be special. Special for our fans first of all, for all the staff, the players and the people that love Tottenham,” said Pochettino.
“It’s true that with the new era and the new stadium, different expectations arrive but it’s most important that always in our memory will be White Hart Lane in behind and the soil and the smell. It will be sad on Sunday but it will be exciting to welcome the new era of Tottenham.”
Mourinho is certain to make changes over the next 10 days. Some for Sunday, a few more as United faces Southampton at Saint Mary’s on Wednesday night, and plenty against Palace at Old Trafford next weekend. How many is a difficult balance between ensuring his likely starting team against Ajax remains fit and fresh, but also not undercooked. The Reds will be without five injured players: Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Tim Fosu-Mensah, Marcos Rojo, Luke Shaw and Ashley Young, none of whom will feature again this season.
Spurs subs from: Vorm, Lopez, Walker, Wimmer, Wanyama, Sissoko, Nkoudou, Janssen
United subs from: Romero, Blind, Jones, Valencia, McTominay, Lingard, Olosunde, Wilock, Mitchell, Rashford
The manager is likely to rest all of his key players at White Hart Lane, including Paul Pogba – who did not travel – Marcus Rashford, and Antonio Valencia. Ander Herrera could play, but only because there are so few other options available in midfield, with Marouane Fellaini suspended. Youngsters Matt Willock or Scott McTominay could come into the side, with the Mourinho effectively labelling this game a dead-rubber. Jesse Lingard is also an option in central midfield.
Chris Smalling or Phil Jones will come into the side with Eric Bailly’s suspension for the Europa League final in mind, although the Ivorian is free to play on Sunday. Once again, Mourinho must strike a balance between ensuring Smalling and Jones get minutes, and protecting the English pair from almost inevitable injury. Wayne Rooney could come back into the side, with Antony Martial and Juan Mata also in need of minutes.
“I approach these games the same. I have to give some minutes to everyone because we only have 15 players,” said Mourinho on Friday.
“I don’t have another solution. In the Premier League, we can only finish fifth or sixth. I don’t think we can finish seventh or we can finish fourth so it’s fifth or sixth and we can win a trophy. By winning that trophy, we can play in the Champions League next season so that’s the game.
“Obviously now Ajax think about the final. Their league finishes on Sunday and they will have 10 days to prepare. We have three league matches to play. I am going to make a lot of changes. It doesn’t matter what happens. And nobody can blame us, because we have a final.”
Referee: Jonathan Moss
Assistants: E Smart, A Halliday
Fourth official: L Mason
Spurs 2-0 United