Macarthur goalkeeper Filip Kurto pulled off an incredible reflex save after the ball was belted into his face. He was left a little dazed…
If you’ve been following the career of one Angelos Postecoglou, previously of Melbourne, more recently of Yokohama, Glasgow and London, you won’t have been surprised at all to hear his comments last week.
“I look at the top teams and there is one common trait, they invest in a plan and stick to it,” he said ahead of Spurs’ daunting visit to Manchester City.
“They don’t shy away from the plan at the first difficult thing, whether it’s Liverpool, Arsenal – they stick to the plan. You have to.
“Whatever you strongly believe in only gets tested in tough times – it doesn’t get tested when things are going well.”
If you’ve been listening long enough, you’d have heard him say similar things ahead of Celtic’s games against Real Madrid last year and, indeed, prior to the Socceroos’ Group of Death with Spain, Chile and the Netherlands all the way back in 2024. The guy doesn’t change for anyone.
Of course, if it does happen in the Premier League it doesn’t matter, so the hacks lined up to put the question to Postecoglou last week anyway.
From the people who brought you “could he do it on a wet Wednesday night in Stoke?” came the barrage about the high line, the attacking style and the unwillingness to compromise.
Ange did that thing he does where mate means something with the name number of letters but can’t be printed in a family publication.
His side drew 3-3 in the end, which was, in fairness, a little lucky. They lost the xG 2.57 to 0.46, which does suggest that fortune played more than a small part, but the point that Ange was making stands. His side did it his way, because you need to keep doing it his way against the best to be able to do it at all.
Compare and contrast to the other side of Manchester and a manager under a lot more pressure.
Erik ten Hag’s United were actually top of the Premier League form table until this weekend’s defeat to Newcastle, having gone 4-2 since the start of October, while Spurs had lost their last three straight.
But the feeling was totally different, because one side were playing in a very specific way with clear aims and the other were almost winning in spite of themselves.
It’s not the manager’s philosophy, either.
Ten Hag’s Ajax were masters of going up against major opposition and showing no fear: under him they won away at Spurs, Valencia, Juventus, Sporting Lisbon, Borussia Dortmund, Besiktas and Real Madrid – who they tonked 4-1 at the Bernabeu.
They did that by having a plan and sticking to it. Answers on a postcard if you know for what United’s plan is in 2023/24.
Against Newcastle, they had a midfield of Kobbie Mainoo and Scott McTominay with Luke Shaw at centre back and Anthony Martial up top.
Antony and Rasmus Hojlund came off the bench – that’s over $200m worth of talent – and Raphael Varane didn’t even make it that far. Donny van de Beek was there, too, if you were wondering if he still played for United.
There’s a few injuries, but then everyone has that. Newcastle’s list of outs is longer and Spurs’ casualty ward looks like Saving Private Ryan at the moment.
What is different it that they have principles that they stick to relentlessly. As Ange said, if you can’t perform the plan when the pressure’s on, you don’t have a plan at all.
United have now picked up just a solitary point against top half opposition since the start of last season – against a fully checked out Spurs in April – and seem to be bereft against anybody even half good.
At St James’ Park on Saturday, they managed just eight shots, one on target, and were comprehensively outplayed.
Ironically enough, they could have nicked a draw late had Harry Maguire not accidentally got in the way of a late shot while offside, but had that goal stood, it would have been a travesty and, likely, covered up the malaise that hangs over the club yet further.
“There were players that played last night for United that you thought were maybe going to leave the club in the summer,” said Roy Keane on the Sky Sports coverage.
“But you’re still going back to the same players that have been getting United nowhere fast over the last one or two years.
“So, what’s the sign of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.
“This group’s not going to change. If they’re not going to work as hard as the opposition then you’re in trouble, and they don’t.”
Keane reserved particular ire for Marcus Rashford, who is hugely out of form, identifying the Manchester-born forward as the sort of player who should be leading the revival, rather than skulking about.
“We’re talking about examples on a training ground, the one thing you want from a Man United player, first of all, the work rate, the desire,” said the former United midfielder.
“He’s obviously a talented boy, he’s 26. If he’s one of the more senior players and he’s got that mega deal now. Huge money. He’s got to set the example, he’s got to run more than anybody.
“He’s got to lead by example and he’s certainly not. Is he on his own? Absolutely not.”
Rashford is a nice cipher for the malaise. Ten Hag’s Ajax were superb in that they could switch up between a highly transitional style in Europe and a ball-dominant style in the Eredivisie, where teams were happy to sit off them.
United, in many ways, are set up perfectly to do the same. In Rashford, Hojlund and Antony, they have the sort of lightning counter attacking players that could play that way against top half opposition, as well as the more intricate players who were effective when the side had more of the ball.
Ajax, for example, played Dusan Tadic – in this side, that would be Bruno Fernandes – as a false 9 in Europe with Hakim Ziyech and David Neres attacking from wide, but dropped him into the 10 role at home with either Klaas-Jan Huntelaar or Kasper Dolberg as a more orthodox 9.
Latterly, Sebastien Haller became the striker and went better than a goal every two games across two seasons before signing for Dortmund.
Ten Hag has so many options but seems to have no idea how to use them. The prolonged absence of Jaden Sancho, plus the inexplicable benching of Varane and the persistence with players clearly not good enough, now looks like weakness on the part of the manager, not the players.
Ange was widely praised for having stuck to his guns even though his side were playing the champions, away, with a thousand injuries and suspensions.
At half time, when trailing, he told his charges to go out and lean even more into the style.
United don’t have a style to lean into. When things go wrong, they look at each other, not the manager, and when that happens, the chances are that it won’t be long until it’s a different bloke on the sideline.