With Manchester United’s Premier League campaign having basically ended as a result of results earlier in the weekend, many might have thought they would play with something approaching freedom when Tottenham Hotspur closed the curtain on White Hart Lane on Sunday.
Instead the 2-1 defeat was about as disjointed a performance as United have offered all season. One may suggest that it comes as no surprise since they were fielding a much-changed side with the Europa League final against Ajax to come, but this was hardly a team of under-23s out on the pitch.
Rarely in this most inconsistent of seasons have Jose Mourinho’s side been so disappointing and so confused, despite the fact most of those on the pitch had a real point to prove heading into the game.
Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Jesse Lingard, Michael Carrick, Daley Blind and Juan Mata are among those fighting for a Europa League final spot, Wayne Rooney is the United and England captain and record goal-scorer but clearly has a future of some sort to play for. And Eric Bailly should have been more motivated than ever to turn in a good performance after his reckless sending-off on Thursday which robs the side of their best defender for the Europa League final.
While David de Gea regularly stood tall as the only real line of defence against Spurs’ barrage, Axel Tuanzebe was the only outfield player to truly stand out even though he was being played out of position at the base of midfield on a thankless man-marking mission against Christian Eriksen.
Anthony Martial strove hard in the Spurs half almost without aid and had Hugo Lloris panicking on two separate occasions as he managed to fashion chances for himself. It was one of his drives into the channel which led to Rooney netting a barely-deserved goal which took some of the gloss off Spurs’ afternoon.
But that was about as good as it got for United, and was certainly not ample enough reward for the 1,600 or so away supporters who had made the long trip to north London for a second lifeless showing in the space of seven days.
These fans, who concocted the chant claiming “Jose’s playing the way that United should” earlier this year, have every right to wonder whether Mourinho truly gets what it means to be Manchester United manager after their last few league performances. Prioritising the Europa League is one thing, but refusing to contemplate an even mildly attacking approach is quite another. On Sunday, United again only managed just over a third of the possession as Tottenham took all the initiative.
There are still large pockets of United support which retain a general mistrust of Mourinho and his football ethics, and conversations in the pubs of Manchester often come back to whether he is the right man to represent the club. And while he does command the admiration and backing of other fans, they will be short of ammunition in the debates in the next few days following this latest setback.
Fans of clubs in far worse shape than United will not feel the slightest bit sorry for those who have had to idly stand and watch their team submissively fall to Arsenal and Spurs - and hang on luckily against Celta Vigo - over the past week.
But following United is meant to represent something different. There is supposed to be something quite mythical and mystical about cheering for United from the terraces all across England, but this was just another performance which could have been turned in by players wearing a Macclesfield Town shirt rather than a Manchester United one.
As much as this match didn’t really matter in the grand scheme of United’s season, the least their fans could have been forgiven for expecting was an uplifting performance. But that is no longer a given with this manager in charge and this rag-tag group of players on the pitch.