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Tottenham vs Manchester United: Spurs gave everything but at their best they still broke

Pochettino’s side fostered the clearest chances, cantered with possession and settled into the big occasion better

Tom Kershaw
Wembley Stadium
Sunday 13 January 2019 19:49 GMT
Tottenham Hotspur: A look back at 2018

Never has a team so shellshocked, utterly wide-eyed and fearful as today’s Manchester United taken three points from Spurs.

Sunday saw Wembley play host to a heist that outweighed even its own grand stage. A flick of Houdini’s hand, so great it could rarely be repeated. Tottenham held nothing back into this 1-0 defeat, pestled themselves down to the last sinews of Moussa Sissoko’s groin and Harry Kane’s ankle, created so many clear-cut chances they could have scored on a dozen occasions, yet left empty handed and hollow-hearted.

No matter what they did, for all lack of fortune and an inspired other-worldly performance from David De Gea, the unburdening bustle of net never came, it was never quite enough.

Harry Kane had spent the build-up to the match talking about how Tottenham had shed of their inferiority complex. Never had fate seemed to conspire quite so foully in condemning them to that old adage once again.

Mauricio Pochettino’s side had 21 shots on goal and after a tepid first ten minutes where both sides prodded and pressed with little more than cautious inquiry, seemed to settle into the occasion better than United, even with a more assured sense of belonging.

Son Heung-Min stampeded down the left-wing in obnoxiously direct fashion, Ashley Young’s legs bowed and buckled accordingly and Harry Winks dragged a shot a sliver wide across the face of the goal. A rhythm laid down serenely before the rare errant notes brought down its whole production.

The cunning tactic presented by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side – to wait for a Spurs attack like a coiled predator before springing into the space behind their full-backs – succeeded via Spurs own complacency. With each first-half attack, Spurs hoisted all but two of their outfield players forward, and were warned twice on the counter as Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford blistered past Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld as though they were bollards.

At the third time of asking, after Keiran Trippier fumbled the ball to Paul Pogba in the centre-circle, the Frenchman lifted his head with a customary glance of the shoulder to see a javelin’s throw of space left in those same places. Pogba’s dinked ball put Rashford in a realm of his own, and the 21-year-old executed at the first time of asking in the way Tottenham couldn’t muster. That was the difference, that was all it ever took.

Never have the two tilts of Tottenham, the ever-improving ability to haul themselves forward yet remain a side falling into old traps, been so evident. Each attack exuded the energy of the squad who obliterated Chelsea’s unbeaten run and returned them as ramshackle.

But as the second half cemented into a terminal pattern of chances which incomprehensibly escaped De Gea’s net, the aura of ugly nostalgia began to cast its long shadow. Spurs summoned wind after wind until, finally, the well was parched and the legs went from under them in the face of United’s unfathomably resilient defence. The notion that no matter what Pochettino does with this team, an unforeseen roadblock will always remain with drone-like proficiency on his runway lasts still.

Spurs are left to rue what might have been (AFP/Getty) (AFP/Getty Images)

After Kane’s first-half goal was ruled offside by a rabbit’s snout, one-on-ones were deflected away by flying toes, Eriksen’s free-kick narrowly evaded the post, right up until De Gea’s exceptional cross-footed save from Alderweireld’s flicked volley. The drumming metronome of chances were relentless, yet the subconscious blockade somehow stopping Spurs from sticking the knife stood impervious.

The closer they came, the further they seemed to drift away. The more the panic started to set in behind their spurts of confidence. The consuming angst fed by each errant through-ball until with just a few moments of stoppage time to play the shoulders dropped for the final time. Defeat, in its cruellest form, consigned if not accepted.

For all will and determination, Spurs’ cogs had finally been ridden to rickets and run into the ground.

Now Pochettino will have to nurse wounded egos in the dressing room, a loss his players will never quite be able to comprehend or console. They gave everything, every ounce juiced down to the last pulp. Still, it wasn’t enough. That, above all, is why it’s so damning. At their best, Spurs still broke. That is the loss from which its hardest to recover.

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