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11th Dec 2016

Mourinho’s United returned to observing the club’s most important tradition with Spurs win

But Tottenham looked like a side that can't escape their history

Dion Fanning

George Graham once walked into a press conference at Old Trafford after his Tottenham side had played Manchester United and asked, “Who here thought we could win today?”

Graham wasn’t making a statement about how his team had defied the odds, he wasn’t Muhammad Ali looking around a room and seeking out those who had tipped George Foreman. He was highlighting how they had matched the odds and nobody should be too dismayed.

On that day, Spurs had been beaten at Old Trafford and, even under an Arsenal man like Graham, they had conformed to every stereotype about Tottenham Hotspur. Nobody in the press room put their hand up to say they had thought Tottenham would win, and Spurs hadn’t disappointed.

Before Sunday’s meeting, Jose Mourinho described Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham Hotspur as the best team in the Premier League. There is always the temptation with Mourinho to go excavating for mind games, to figure out who he is burning in and what he is talking about when he talks about anything. But it may be different with this Manchester United: Mourinho may have talked Spurs up because he felt confident his side would beat them.

Victory is something Manchester United can no longer take for granted so their win on Sunday needs to be recognised as significant. Henrikh Mkhitaryan scored a goal which was a reminder of his ability which had passed his manager by during the opening months of the season. But it was also a reminder of all that made Mourinho great when he created sides which would always punish their opponent’s mistakes. A misplaced pass by Harry Kane ended up with Ander Herrera and swiftly Mkhitaryan was through and driving the ball high into the Tottenham net.

Too often this season, Mourinho’s United haven’t punished mistakes and have made too many of their own. As Paul Pogba shot against the post and was then denied by Hugo Lloris, the expectation among some Manchester United fans was that this would be another day when they threw a victory away.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 11: Henrikh Mkhitaryan of Manchester United scores the opening goal during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford on December 11, 2016 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

When Mkhitaryan left the field on a stretcher, dropped points seemed even more certain, but Tottenham were bowing to an ever greater inevitability and United achieved their first league win at Old Trafford since September.

It has been startling to hear Mourinho talk about his side not getting the results they have deserved in recent weeks, no matter how true it might be. Mourinho’s core belief has always been that the result is what you deserve. Nothing else matters and the rest is just the mutterings of Einsteins and specialists in failure.

This was the deal with Mourinho. Look away as he upset the world and look back as he was celebrating another triumph.

He wasn’t hired at United to make friends. He was brought in because those at Old Trafford discovered that the short-term always trumps the long-term and they needed an expert in the field.

But this season, he has had to readjust. Mourinho has expressed some sadness in recent days that his fine work restoring the attacking traditions of Manchester United had been overlooked by those who now only wanted results.

But Manchester United’s overarching tradition under Alex Ferguson was always based on achieving the right result. It had been the key factor in recruiting Mourinho. After all, if you wanted to plan for six years down the line, there wouldn’t be any point in sacking David Moyes.

Mourinho might have wondered about the lip service paid to those traditions when Marouane Fellaini was booed by some supporters when he warmed up and again when he came on in the final seconds. It was as if some of them had forgotten all that Manchester United was all about and just wanted a side which wouldn’t mess up.

It revealed the sense of anxiety that remains at Old Trafford, while the nobler aspects of any club’s culture are easier to acknowledge when things are going well. United, for example, could say they weren’t a sacking club during the long years when Alex Ferguson was winning everything. Failure has altered that tradition.

But beating Spurs will always be part of the tapestry. The Tottenham Hotspur that faced Manchester United on Sunday looked uncannily like nearly every Tottenham team that has played at Old Trafford over the years. 

Pochettino has been doing much to alter the perception of Tottenham, but this season they have looked like a side that can’t escape its own history.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 11: Paul Pogba of Manchester United takes a free kick hitting a post during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford on December 11, 2016 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Even the demolition of Manchester City seems less like a vision for the future as the weeks pass. Pochettino is a manager of creativity and ideas, but Tottenham currently look like a team which has been reacquainted with its own limitations, which was reminded last season that there are great leaps forward the club still have to make and now they feel compelled to retreat.

Even when United looked vulnerable, Spurs did little to expose those vulnerabilities, apart from a spell when Moussa Sissoko had the beating of Matteo Darmian, something which seemed to stun not only Darmian but Sissoko’s own team-mates who were lost as how to react.

That spell soon ended and United could hold out for a victory which was vital for their season, while demonstrating that you should never forget the importance of tradition.

Catch up with this week’s episode of Football Friday Live: