In the opening match of the Premier League season, Manchester United triumphed 1-0 over Tottenham at Old Trafford. Yet, rather than the result, it would be the pattern of the match that would prove a far more reliable guide of how both teams’ seasons would go.
While Manchester United were victorious, they were far from impressive. The sole goal came from the boot of Kyle Walker, while the home side had to wait until the 65th minute for their one and only shot on target. The insipid play that largely characterized Louis van Gaal’s first season in charge was in evidence once again, despite the presence of new signings like Memphis Depay and Bastian Schweinsteiger.
Tottenham, meanwhile, as manager Mauricio Pochettino expressed afterward, could count themselves hugely unfortunate to come out on the losing end. Having controlled much of the 90 minutes, it was only the lack of a cutting edge up front that held Tottenham back.
Going into that curtain raiser, Manchester United were seen as the team that would be the team mounting a challenge for the title this season, while Tottenham would be facing an uphill battle for a Champions League place. Fast forward eight months and the roles have been reversed.
Goalscoring would remain a problem for Spurs for the opening weeks of the season, with a heavy reliance on a misfiring Harry Kane seeing them score just five goals in their first six matches. Still the potential was clearly evident in a squad that had been trimmed of its fat over the summer and was now fully in sync with Pochettino’s demanding pressing style.
And since Kane kick-started his campaign with a goal in a 4-1 win over Manchester City at the end of September, neither he nor his team have looked back. Kane leads the Premier League scoring charts with 22 goals to his name and Tottenham, despite dropping two points in last week’s draw with Liverpool, remain in with a shot of a first title in 55 years, trailing Leicester City by seven points with six matches remaining.
Tottenham had spent less than half the money of Manchester United in the summer transfer window, investing largely in young talent with potential. But, under the tutelage of Pochettino, their strategy has paid swift and significant dividends.
Unquestionably the newcomer who has deserved most praise is Dele Alli. Few would have imagined this time a year ago that a midfield partnership of the 19-year-old, who officially signed from Milton Keynes Dons in January 2015, and Eric Dier, who spent his first season at White Hart Lane as a defender, would have Tottenham sitting in second in the table. But the success of that duo, who could also form England’s central midfield partnership at Euro 2016, is testament to Pochettino’s coaching acumen and particularly his development of young players.
The man he will come up against at White Hart Lane once again on Sunday has made his reputation on developing young talent. And that is currently the only thing that looks set to come out of Van Gaal’s second season in charge of Manchester United.
As that opening game of the season hinted, United have made no discernable progress since the veteran Dutch coach took charge in the summer of 2014. Indeed, after achieving the minimum objective of Champions League qualification in his first season, they could well go backward this campaign. Already dumped out of both the Champions League and the Europa League, Manchester United are currently on the outside looking in in the battle for a top-four place. A point back of Manchester City, Van Gaal’s side need the points on Sunday every bit as much as Tottenham.
If United are to get the win, it is likely to rely heavily, like Tottenham, on their young talent. Encouraged by the poor construction of the squad and continual injuries, Van Gaal has put his faith in a number of players who, regardless of Van Gaal’s fate this summer, could be vital performers for the club for years to come.
Admittedly at the top of that queue is the man Manchester United made the most expensive teenager in history last summer, Anthony Martial. But the likes of Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and Guillermo Varela have all played a far greater part this season than anyone would have imagined. That list could be added to on Sunday with 18-year-old Timothy Fosu-Mensah in line for his second Premier League start after setting up Martial for the only goal in last week’s win over Everton.
Yet, while Manchester United may have unearthed some talent, it is Tottenham that have navigated the season and their team’s development with far greater clarity.
Prediction: Pochettino is yet to secure a win over Van Gaal’s Manchester United, but that could well change on Sunday. Tottenham will have had a full week of rest and preparation for a Premier League fixture for the first time since February, which should ensure they have plenty of intensity to their game. To match that, United must utilize the pace and dynamism of Martial and Rashford. But an often ponderous midfield could struggle to match the legs of Dier, Alli and Dembele, helping Tottenham to a vital three points.
Predicted score: Tottenham 1-0 Manchester United
D: Walker, Alderweireld, Wimmer, Rose
M: Dier, Dembele
Lamela, Alli, Eriksen
G: De Gea
D: Darmian, Smalling, Blind, Fosu-Mensah
M: Carrick, Schneiderlin
Mata, Lingard, Martial