It seemed to be a premonition that the match programme publishers dared make Henrikh Mkhitaryan their cover image, diplomatically describing the requirement to “adapt” which saw the Armenian start only two Premier League games before this. If truth be told, the Armenian would say his manager has simply failed to know the quality in front of his eyes but, regardless of that, he let the football do his talking.
The 27-year-old ended the afternoon with his first Old Trafford goal, three days after scoring his first Manchester United goal, so crowning a performance which he provided the unexpected and dangerous component in Mourinho’s side. Yet he also ended it on a stretcher, taken off in the final 10 minutes with a suspected ankle injury. Manchester United have recorded consecutive wins for the first time since last September and though scruffy and a less than emphatic demonstration of their muscle, there was evidence that the pieces of the puzzle are beginning to fit.
Mourinho is perhaps also persuaded at last of the poise and vision Michael Carrick has to bring, with a touch which was impressive again, while Paul Pogba’s threat from the berth behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic, rattling the bar and bringing a fine save from Hugo Lloris in the game’s late stages, make the way ahead look increasingly foggy for the unused captain, Wayne Rooney. Ander Herrera, impressive again, looks like future captain material.
It is the goal which will live longest in the memory. Mkhitaryan’s finish was memorable for its power and assuredness, as the right-sided midfielder required one touch on the ball that Herrera traced into his path, before thrashing it high into the rook of Lloris’ net.
It was a hustle which had created the chance. The threatening presence of Pogba had led Harry Kane to spill possession directly to Herrera and that moment encapsulated the frailty and lack of precision at times which explains why Spurs, ten points off top spot now, are struggling to attain last season’s standard.
Kane, Delli Ali, Victor Wanyama and Christian Eriksen could not make an impression on the game and the prospect of United being tested to the core by the fastest and fittest in the Premier League simply did not materialise. Tottenham’s only threat was with the dead ball: Eriksen (twice) and Son Heung-min both forced David de Gea into sharp saves.
The chances Spurs were presented with were a product of that capacity United have to commit defensive suicide. A 15-yard run on a free kick from Wanyama after 55 minutes went entirely undetected, with Matteo Darmian the culprit, but the Dutchman conspired to head the ball down into the turf with the goal at his mercy. Alli was equally blunt when Antonio Valencia’s back pass sent him through to goal.
On this error-strewn landscape, Mkhitaryan was a shining light, with his ambition and distance run. He caused danger all over the front line on the first half, frequently advancing into the right hand channel. His advance positions provide an effective link up with Ibrahimovic and he picks the pass behind the defensive line, too – measuring one for Ibrahimovic when the game was only two minutes old from which the Swede provided an outstanding chance for Pogba. The Frenchman’s left-footed shot with the instep was easy for Lloris to palm away.
On the sidelines, Jose Mourinho was a brooding presence, barely noticeable in the first half though on the touchline again in the second, willing free kicks to be given and thumping the turf with such unmitigated fury when unhappy that you have to feel that the story of his clash with authority will continue to colour the season. “I believe we are in the top three teams in terms of the quality of our performance,” was his observation before the match. The injustice he feels about the way his team have been painted is never far from the surface and Danny Rose’s late run into the box nearly compounded it. Phil Jones withdrew from a challenge just in time to prevent the defender drawing a foul and penalty.
But as Tottenham struggled to provide the late vim which has made United so vulnerable to the late equaliser, it was the Portuguese’s team who threatened with those Pogba efforts – a free kick bent against the bar with Lloris stranded and a give-and-go with Herrera which took him into shooting distance, forcing the goalkeeper to leap left and save.
Mkhitaryan was asked in the match programme interview if he feared for the lack of a winter break. “No,” he said. “It’s always better to play every three or four days and to be awake and alive." He’s no intention of heading back to the shadows now.
Manchester United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Valencia, Jones, Rojo, Darmian; Carrick, Herrera; Mkhitaryan (Bailly 85), Pogba, Martial (Rashford 79); Ibrahimovic.
Substitutes: Romero, Mata, Rooney, Blind, Fellaini.
Tottenham Hotspur (4-2-3-1): Lloris; Walker, Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Rose; Dembele (Winks 66), Wanyama; Eriksen (Nkoudou 83), Alli, Son (Sissosko, 57); Kane.
Substitutes: Vorm, Dier, Wimmer, Davies
Referee: R Madley (West Yorkshire)
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