Phil Jones the lasting image from a woeful night for United

Centre back’s own goal was just the start of the problems that plagued Mourinho’s team

Manchester United’s Phil Jones reacts after scoring an own goal in their Premier League defeat to Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley. Photo: Adrian Dennis/Getty Images

Manchester United’s Phil Jones reacts after scoring an own goal in their Premier League defeat to Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley. Photo: Adrian Dennis/Getty Images

 

For Manchester United this was a bruising 2-0 defeat by better-balanced opponents and an occasion that seemed to float past in a series of occasionally bizarre snapshots. Marouane Fellaini gave a new twist to the idea of two-touch football, coming on after 62 minutes, having two touches, then leaving seven minutes later with a knee injury. If it is any consolation, he was still probably one of United’s better midfielders on the night.

Paul Pogba marauded weirdly for an hour, a free radical in what was supposed to be a rigid two-man central midfield. With 66 minutes gone he could be seen jogging off, pointedly uninjured, substituted for playing like Paul Pogba.

Then there was Phil Jones: A Study In Blue. This is a footballer whose professional life has been measured out in gurning stills, caught on camera with the look of a man who seems to have taken the ill-advised decision to sneak a quick look inside the Ark of the Covenant while simultaneously challenging for a high ball at a corner.

There was another one of these at Wembley, Jones captured plunging his face into one of the padded struts behind the goal, looking as though he was trying to hide and to seek a consoling embrace in its plasticised innards.

Understandably so. Tottenham’s second goal had come from Jones’s own instep midway through the first half, a horrible own goal to follow some weak marking from Chris Smalling for the first. Images tell a powerful story and it will be hard to resist the obvious story here, a tale of wondrously well-resourced midfield and attack let down by the pumpkins at the back; of a manager who has recarpeted the stairs in sequinned yak-thread weave but forgotten to spend a few hundred quid fixing the roof.

This is only half the story. United’s problems started further forward with an obvious failure in structure and personnel in midfield. Spurs were excellent in the centre, quicker and snappier, better organised, hunting in packs of four, but their excellence was emphasised by a bizarrely unbalanced opposition.

United’s starting 11 featured a midfield and attack with five players signed for a total of £285m. Even as a set of names on a piece of paper it was a thrilling display of power and muscle. It took 11 seconds for Spurs to put a fist through this. The opening goal came from a punted pass, a ricochet, a sudden sight of goal and an instant finish from Christian Eriksen. As the half wore on it began to look less like bad luck plus opportunism, more like a failure of organisation.

For a while the game was bafflingly open. United are supposed to be dour and migrainously defensive away to the bigger teams, as they are also at times at home to bigger teams or indeed the smaller teams. There is nothing wrong with this. Successful defensive football is still successful football. United came to Wembley having not conceded a goal in six games since Boxing Day.

And yet the striking thing in those opening exchanges was the absence of control, an open midfield with Pogba haring upfield at every opportunity leaving Nemanja Matic to cover the vast lime-green squares of the Wembley chequerboard.

The second goal arrived via a fizzing little triangle involving Mousa Dembélé, Dele Alli and Eriksen, sucking in the red shirts, then zipping the ball out to the right wing. Jones’s attempt to clear Kieran Trippier’s cross became a wonderful no-look sidefoot finish past his own keeper, clipped in with Ronaldinho-ish nonchalance.

It was bad luck, of course, but it came from Spurs’ excellence in swarming through those spaces in midfield. Soon after Pogba could be seen in animated conversation with José Mourinho. For a while he dropped deeper, playing flatter alongside Matic. Clearly this is not really where he wants to be or where his mastery of the ball and those feet that are both whiplash dribbling instruments and purveyors of dreamy floated passes are best placed.

It is an issue of balance Mourinho will face again given the quality in his squad. Some will suggest this is a problem of basic method, that Mourinho does not really like elite attacking players, that he prefers fit, strong intelligent players who occupy the fixed points within his carefully stitched design. Faced with all this power and possibility he is playing someone else’s game, dragged out of his zone of excellence; forced, awkwardly, to dance. On the evidence of Wembley watching him find a solution will be fascinating. – Guardian service

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