Tottenham defeat hands Jose Mourinho a Champions League blueprint
Jose Mourinho will not be grateful for the manner in which Tottenham swept his team aside in the Premier League on Jan.31, but he may eventually reflect that Mauricio Pochettino and his men did Manchester United a favour.
Pochettino ruthlessly proved that, against elite competition, Paul Pogba is best accompanied in the middle of the park by two midfielders, who also serve as necessary protection for the defence.
Here, Nemanja Matic -- assuming he is properly rested at some point -- and Ander Herrera are able to provide support. For Pogba, there is no shame in that. After all, Steven Gerrard at his peak was able to attack in the knowledge that Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano were taking care of defensive duties behind him. Moreover, it is a valuable lesson that arrives just in time for the return of the Champions League.
In many ways, a match against Spurs is the perfect test run for a campaign in the latter stages of Europe's leading club competition. The Londoners are, on their day, as good a side as Mourinho is likely to encounter -- excellent at pressing, devastating on the break. As sparring partners, they reveal all their opponents' flaws.
Mourinho will now face the inescapable reality that a central defensive pairing of Phil Jones and Chris Smalling does not give him the security he needs at the back, and nor does it provide a platform for effective counter-attacking. Smalling is visibly uncomfortable playing the ball forward, most often choosing to give it to either of his full-backs, which means that his opposing forwards -- secure in the knowledge that he will not seek to play through them -- can then isolate the full-backs or Smalling's partner, most often Phil Jones, and try to win possession from them. Jones has improved on the ball, but is not nearly as technically accomplished as, say, Real Madrid's Raphael Varane or Manchester City's John Stones. For Mourinho to succeed in Europe, this is a problem he must solve, and quickly.
The major news in this respect is that Eric Bailly may return to first team action by the end of February. Bailly is, by many accounts, the best central defender at the club, and not only has good chemistry playing alongside Jones but brings the superior passing that the team needs. A back four of Luke Shaw -- whose recent form has been very encouraging -- Antonio Valencia, Jones and Bailly is a strong foundation for United on which to build. This lineup gives the team pace down the flanks and a measure more reliability than they have at present.
If Manchester United are to conquer Europe, they will need to address one key issue in attack, which is who will play either side of Romelu Lukaku. At present, Alexis Sanchez and either Juan Mata or Jesse Lingard look set to get the nod. What Mata lacks in speed he often makes up for in vision, and his tidiness in possession -- he retains the ball as well as any United player, particularly in the final third -- usefully complements the intense and almost chaotic approach of Sanchez. If Mourinho is feeling in particularly conservative mood, then he can always call upon Marcus Rashford or Anthony Martial from the bench.
It may be, then, that Pochettino's masterpiece against United has unwittingly given them a better blueprint for success on the Continent. A regular criticism of United this season, and in several respects a fair one, is that they have not been very good at getting results against their closest rivals in the league table -- which in one sense makes it all the more remarkable that they are still in second place. The fact that they are still second suggests that they have a certain resilience, which in the context of a knockout competition is one of the things that may swing a close tie in their favour.
It should be noted, too, that this is not a vintage year for European club sides, with very few standing out as the favourites. In this relatively level field, United can quietly and cautiously fancy their chances -- since though they may not boast the very greatest attacking riches, they have more than enough speed and firepower to unsettle the very best sides.
And it would be a rich irony indeed if Mourinho's struggles this season against the Premier League's elite convinced him of the pragmatism he will need if United are to conquer Europe again.
Musa Okwonga is one of ESPN FC's Manchester United bloggers. Follow on Twitter: @Okwonga.