A piece of brilliance and careless play costs Sheffield United dear against Tottenham Hotspur
Around two minutes before kick-off, as Sheffield United’s players began filing out of the tunnel and onto the pitch, Jose Mourinho could be spotted loitering near the end of the canopy protecting them from nothing in particular as he waited for Chris Wilder to emerge.
The greeting which followed was suitably socially distanced, save for the now traditional elbow bump. It was also the first and last display of warmth from the Portuguese all afternoon, with Tottenham Hotspur producing a performance so cold, calculating and ruthless even Wilder, whose side were plunged even deeper into trouble at the bottom of the table as a result, felt compelled to pay tribute.
“We have to be near perfect, to get anything at this level,” he said. “You’ve seen what happens when we’re not. These lads are giving everything. But that’s the brutality of the division. Spurs have world class talents. It’s as basic as that.”
As both Wilder and Mourinho noted, Spurs’ third and final strike of what proved a routine victory was anything but - Tanguy Ndombele touching home from what appeared to be an impossibly tight angle after a quite brilliant interchange with Steven Bergwijn. But, just as when Serge Aurier and Harry Kane also found the back of the net, the visitors’ benefited from a helping hand as United’s concentration levels again left much to be desired.
“A moment of genius,” was Mourinho’s description of Ndombele’s strike. “But I don’t care about the goal, I care about what happens overall.”
NO HELP FROM JOSE
Mourinho’s pre-match display of affection towards his opposite number came after learning he is Wilder’s “favourite” top-flight manager. “Jose’s box office,” he had said during Friday’s media briefing. “And his track record, well, that speaks for itself.”
Although beating a United side which finds itself battling against relegation is unlikely to rival lifting the Champions League with both Porto and Internazionale among his list of triumphs, or titles at Chelsea and Real Madrid, Spurs’ work did expose the attention to detail Mourinho employs when analysing opponents. United’s vulnerability at set-pieces was quickly exploited by Serge Aurier while Pierre-Emile Hojberg had clearly been briefed on their lack of pace in midfield; the Dane positioning himself perfectly to exploit Oliver Norwood’s error before creating Spurs’ second of the afternoon.
“The performance was good, the team was good and then a very basic mistake gave them the only chance they had,” Mourinho said. “But we came here and did what we wanted to do. So, again, that’s good.”
Although Spurs’ work was of the quality you would expect from a team with 11 internationals in their starting eleven and strong enough to name Gareth Bale on the bench, United’s was careless even by their own meagre standards during a campaign which has seen them lose 16 of the 19 fixtures they have contested since September. Jayden Bogle offered precious little resistance as Aurier rose to meet Son Heung-Min’s corner while Norwood was at fault for Spurs’ next two goals - scored by Harry Kane and Ndombele. Sandwiched in between those two efforts was David McGoldrick’s 6th of the season. But Ndombele’s outrageous finish, after Norwood had inexplicably allowed the ball to roll in front of him just outside of the penalty area, meant United were unable to grasp the lifeline their centre-forward had thrown them.
“Sheffield United play high intensity football,” Mourinho said. “So we knew we had to cope. It wasn’t easy but we did.”
If Aurier’s finish was simple and Kane’s clinical, then the one Ndombele mustered midway through the second half was absolutely extravagant. Norwood was withdrawn almost immediately, revealing what Wilder felt of his contribution during another difficult afternoon in midfield. But the exchange of passes between the Frenchman and Bergwijn, before the ball was looped over Ramsdale from the tightest of angles, was a delight to behold. It was Spurs at the incisive best and United at their reckless worst.
“The errors, for me, we self-inflicted,” Wilder said. “I admire these lads, they’re giving everything. But self-inflicted errors are actually basic.”
A DAMNING STATISTIC
The three goals Spurs scored means United have now conceded as many times at home this season as they did throughout the entirety of last term, when Wilder’s men ended the 2019/21 programme comfortably in mid-table. That record goes a long way towards explaining why they now find themselves 11 points adrift of safety at the halfway stage. The confidence Wilder’s men will have taken from Tuesday’s victory over Newcastle is likely to quickly drain away unless they can stop presenting opponents with the type of openings the likes of Kane and even Aurier, who has often flattered to deceive since leaving Paris St Germain, are never going to miss.
Five days after registering their first success in the competition since July, United’s hopes of building on that result against Newcastle began to dissipate after only five minutes. Aaron Ramsdale did well to palm Bergwijn’s long-range shot over the crossbar but, from the resulting set-piece, some inexplicably slack marking left him horringly exposed. Kane stretched Spurs’ advantage just before the interval, as a half which had seen United fail to establish any sort of rhythm drew towards a close.
They briefly posed more of a threat afterwards, with Oliver Burke drilling a low shot straight at Hugo Lloris and McGoldrick reducing the deficit. But Ndombele’s impudence, embellished by Bergwijn’s vision and technique as he sent the former Lyon man darting towards the byline, ended any hopes of a comeback.
“We got paid a compliment by the way they set-up,” Wilder said. “Their manager felt we were better than our points tally. But the goals, really, that gave them a boost.”