Surprisingly Scrappy, Stupendously Slippy: Spurs’ Shanghai Showdown

Match Report:

Manchester United (2) vs. Tottenham Hotspur (1)

International Champions Cup

  • Thursday 25th July 2019, KO 12.30 BST, Hongkou Football Stadium, Shanghai [Pre-Season Tour 2019/20, Game #2]
If this is a friendly, I’m not sure I wanna see an unfriendly

It wasn’t quite a bloodbath, but it was something of a mudbath; inescapable, torrential summer rain had thundered down upon Shanghai in the build-up to today’s game. In the nick of time, however, the storm ceased and in its place sweltering, stultifying temperatures took hold of Hongkou Football Stadium – albeit not quite soon enough to firm up the surface of the pitch, resulting at times in slip-and-slide galore during a surprisingly frenzied match between two top-tier Premier League teams who both had something to prove.

Ultimately, the difference in the play of each side came down to a difference in what exactly it was that each one had to prove. United have come into pre-season trying to find their identity; the message coming from Old Trafford has been clear – the Red Devils aim to recapture the spirit and winning proclivities (clearly, one is inextricably linked to the other) of their ’90s dominance, that assured swagger of an era when ‘Sharp’ was the sponsor of their shirts, and ‘sharp’ was the name of the game when it came to the accompanying performances of a teamsheet bathed in the glow of natural, world-beating talent.

A big part of achieving United’s perhaps-not-so Mission Impossible (another franchise that scored big in the late ’90s) is the practical, problem-solving aspect of it – what kind of a scoreboard can Ole construct an image of with the pieces of the puzzle he has available to him? At the end of the season, he hadn’t got that quite right – after all, he’d only just been gifted the puzzle, and after closer inspection of the contents of the box, he found that it had been half-assembled for him already. But his 4 wins in 4 pre-season games (albeit against sides of varying quality) suggests that he might just be getting there. Nobody ever said that rendering the abstract vision in practical form would be easy; Solskjær has been tapping into his inner Ferguson in order to do so, having made clear his admiration for the man, but such is the task ahead that he may yet have to tap into his inner-Da Vinci if he is to restore United to the glory of their heyday. It’s not easy to pull off a Renaissance, even when your bank account resembles that of the Medici family (see: United’s apparent £70million bid for Mr Harry Maguire).

Clockwise, from top left: original Renaissance Man Leonardo da Vinci, his Vitruvian Man, £70 Million Man Maguire and would-be Renaissance Man Ole Gunnar Solksjaer. The four images are connected only by the tenuous assertions made in this article

Spurs, on the other hand, have mostly already crossed that bridge, having long-expelled their demons (even if they have not quite yet replaced them with a trophy, but that is surely imminent).

These lads know who they are: Son, Winks, Sissoko and Ndombele (L-R) take in the sights of Shanghai with a smile (courtesy: Harry Winks)

After 5 years of Pochettino, Spurs know exactly who they are. There is no United-style identity crisis underway at New White Hart Lane (which is my vote for the new stadium’s name, by the way). They are Tottenham Hotspur – they play fast, fluid attacking football that is awe-inspiring to watch. When they hit the right gear, it is a thing of magnificent, magical beauty. Aim high, and fail high if it doesn’t pan out – in the words of Club legend Danny Blanchflower, the game is about glory. And not any kind of glory, either – Spurs are searching for the type of innate, perfect glory that can barely be articulated in words (but you know it when you see it, à la Lucas in the 96th minute of that Ajax game) and can’t be achieved through cynically hoofing a ball at Sissoko’s outstretched arm 2 minutes into a Champions League final (we jest – Liverpool, we love you). The caveat to all of this is the obvious – sometimes Spurs don’t hit that gear.

As a result, the transfer window and this pre-season campaign have all been about addressing head-on this tendency towards inconsistency that saw Pochettino’s men lose to lower-table sides (Burnley, Southampton, West Ham, Crystal Palace) on a worrying number of occasions towards the end of last season.

Spurs didn’t find that perfect gear today against United (just as they didn’t find it when they last played United back in January), but maybe that wasn’t the point. Just as it was in last week’s Juve game, Spurs were playing with a specific task at hand; whilst United worked at reclaiming their first identity, Tottenham were looking for a second – or at least a different flavour of their first identity. A back-up identity, for rotation purposes – a depth hitherto unexplored, something special to ensure that consistency won’t be a problem in the upcoming season.

A major part of this alternate identity is its creation of two interlinked modes of attack – one spearheaded, in this instance, by a combination of Kane, Dele and Academy newcomer Parrott, the other by Son, Lucas and Eriksen, with the option for interchangeability and overlap when Spurs really want to supercharge things, as they did during parts of the Juventus game. Call it a chemistry experiment, if you like. Although goals were thin on the ground, post-game Pochettino seemed pleased with the attacking football he saw today – so we can give this particular experiment an A- (or a B+ if we’re being harsh).

But Spurs’ defence, which is undergoing a similar but more frought bout of experimentation (especially following the departure of Trippier), is a more problematic case study to appraise based on today’s evidence. United cut through Tottenham’s defence with alarming ease, and to devastating effect. Ole’s men were rewarded for their regular deployment of an unexpectedly hard, condensed press that Spurs struggled to properly contain; in the end, United scored twice, but it could easily have been more – early on, Martial hit the post, and later Rashford found himself on goal but was caught offside by fine margins.

Their second goal, a senior first from a promising-looking Angel Gomes, should never have happened. United had packed the press and organised themselves well, but Spurs had, accordingly, packed the box in response. It was not lack of numbers, but instead sloppy, non-committal defending on Tottenham’s right-hand side which failed to shut down a clever, nimble team-effort from United.

The resulting goal was hard to begrudge; Juan Mata played a perceptive one-two onto Gomes, who duly struck from a difficult, tight angle. It was this angle that also made the shot unstoppable – there was no way poor Gazzaniga could stretch to cover the far post without leaving his near one completely exposed (Fig. 1a and 1b).

Fig. 1a (above) – Gomes incoming, and Fig. 1b (below) – Gomes strikes from a tight spot

It’s fair to say that Gazzaniga had a less-than-ideal game. He was not at fault for the second goal, but could surely have stopped the first on a better day. This first goal, courtesy of Martial (21′), came in at the near post, and slipped just inside the space in-between the Spurs goalkeeper’s left-side (with his arm caught in an awkward and frankly unhelpful position) and the post (Fig. 2a and 2b). Credit to Mr Martial where it’s due – even if there was an element of luck, it was an excellently-placed ball, targeted with precision from an angle which left no room for even the slightest error.

It was a tight angle, just like the goal which eventually followed (Gomes struck at 80′); now, either Ole and his crew had analysed and figured out the precise pressure-points of Spurs’ normally robust defence, or the goals were the natural result of the weaknesses of the right and left-backs (in the case of the second and first goals respectively) – i.e. Spurs’ full-backs were pushed to their limits and Martial and Gomes subsequently overflowed like a river into those tight angles which fall just wide of the goal and encroach on the goal-line. Likely, United’s success in these locations today was a combination of the two – it’s common knowledge that Pochettino is taking a natural opportunity to conduct a pre-season experiment with those full-back positions. Accordingly, it’s a loophole that should, and most likely will, be shut down by the time Spurs’ first League game of the season rolls around against a freshly-promoted Villa on 10th August.

Fig. 1 (above, and further pictures below) – Martial slides the ball in past Gazzaniga’s near post
Another angle of the approach
Tight margins

A perpetually-shining light for Spurs today, as has been the case so often in the past six months, was Lucas Moura’s sheer skill and unwavering bravado coupled with his tendency towards calmness under pressure – a combination of talents which lead to Tottenham’s only goal (Lucas, 65′). It was, all things considered, a comparatively scrappy goal for Spurs, born from scrappy play – but the positioning from Son (who provided a relatively-rare header) during his assist, and that of Lucas himself, combined with a skilful first touch and finish from Lucas, required real talent to pull off. Maybe, sometimes, Spurs might like to consider the possibility that banging it into the mixer is occasionally a legitimate recipe for glory – especially when the team have players with a track record of fancy-footwork in claustrophobic spots. Lucas’ first touch masterfully brought the ball under control, and he then juggled it between his feet whilst swarmed by defenders with only inches to move in (it was characteristically Lucas, and characteristically Brazilian). He then got the shot off, and after a minor deflection was rewarded with the goal (Fig. 3). It wasn’t the most sublime goal ever recorded, but it was a goal nonetheless and a well-deserved one.

Fig. 3 – Amidst a sea of red, Lucas gets his shot off after some fancy footwork
Fig. 4 – Dele takes a well-placed pass from Parrot but strikes it with the outside of his boot and De Gea saves it

Dele, who has stated publicly that in 2019/20 he wants to improve on his performances last season, won’t be pleased with himself this evening after missing Spurs’ other great opportunity on goal. Rising Academy talent Parrot, who again looked excellent, found Dele in just-about-clear space towards the centre of the goalmouth (Fig. 4). In what was essentially a one-on-one situation, Dele then struck the ball on the outside of his foot, and with the ball faltering in subsequent speed and trajectory, De Gea confidently blocked what should have been a certain goal from Dele, who has previously excelled in such situations. Generally, Dele was a powerful presence on the pitch – finding himself some much-needed space and tracking back regularly – but he was too powerful according to the (rather overzealous) referee who booked him for a late challenge on freshly-signed Wan-Bissaka. The booking wasn’t deserved at all – it is clear from the replay that Dele slipped on the ailing pitch and fell into Wan-Bissaka (Fig 5) rather than anything more sinister.

Fig. 5 – Dele slips and slides into AWB and receives a booking – look underneath Dele and you can see the saturated mud flying up in the air. It was a clear slip

Elsewhere, Spurs drew more (mostly underserved) criticism for strong tackles – particularly so for Sissoko’s challenge on another new United signee, James. It looked incredibly bad on the replay, although it is clear that his so-called ‘stamp’, which is quite unlike him, was accidental and that Sissoko was another player to fall dramatically foul of the slippery terrain (although he arguably could, and perhaps should, have been more careful). Overall, it was a surprisingly impassioned match for a pre-season friendly thousands of miles from home which featured a teamsheet packed with up-and-comers who had no real reason to disagree with each other (although they might from this point onwards).

But it was clear that United gave as much as they were given, and took as much as was taken from them (and more) – and it remains unclear as to which side started this pattern of aggression. Spurs are a tight-knit team (Pochettino makes sure of this), socially as well as professionally, and are perhaps more united than most – including, ironically and arguably, this United side. They have shown on multiple occasions in the past (for example, notably so against Bournemouth and Manchester City last season) that an affront on one of their team-mates is an affront on them all, and that they will retaliate, particularly if younger players (for example Foyth or Parrot) are targeted. It’s likely that all the madness, on the part of both sides, was due to the extreme heat, pitch conditions and humidity getting to everybody – but there are also indicators that it wasn’t Spurs who started the scrapping.

Fig. 6 – McTominay mounts an aggressive challenge on the Academy’s Parrot

McTominay appeared on several occasions to exert himself aggressively – most notably in an early push of Parrott which was clearly nothing to do with slippage (Fig. 6). Andreas Pereira flung himself around the pitch with the air of a petulant bully, sticking his leg forcefully and quite deliberately through Kane (Fig. 7). Son was another Spurs man who found himself seemingly targeted, receiving a deliberate and obvious foul from Matic (Fig. 8).

Fig. 7 – A petulant Pereira slides straight through Kane, throwing him into the air
Fig. 8 – Son is fouled by Matic, a good metre off the ball

Perhaps on this pitch, in this climactic maelstrom of chaotic heat and humidity, with United’s mission being what it was and Spurs’ mission being entirely at odds with it, it was inevitable that the game would result in a scrappy melange of slip-and-slide challenges that at times resembled a derby. But perhaps, just perhaps, the match could have been more, for both sides. Pochettino said afterwards that he was pleased with what he saw from his players in terms of football (implying approval of the way Spurs’ new inconsistency-resistant system is developing). Ole was obviously happy with winning, which was his key objective – after all, the foundation of United’s identity is built on winning. Ultimately, however, the jury’s still out on what a Spurs vs United game might look like when the two sides square up against each other in the Premier League this season – and, indeed, what the two sides will look like more generally when they start playing competitive matches. As long as there’s plenty of glory – whether the Tottenham brand or the United flavour of it – to be had in the final form of each side, fans should be thrilled; after all, glory is what the game’s all about. ⚽

Poch looks pensive after the second goal
The match result at a glance

Next game: Tottenham Hotspur vs. Real Madrid, 30th July 2019 (KO 17.00, Allianz Arena), Audi Cup (Semi-Final)

Fun fact: This was Ndombele’s first start for Tottenham 🐣

Extra fun fact: This is the second game in a row in which Lucas Moura has scored in the 65th minute 🍾

All text is © 2020 Tottenham, 2019


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