In the sweltering Shanghai heat, Manchester United beat Spurs 2-1 in the International Champions Cup.
The Red Devils dominated the first-half and took the lead, but Spurs bossed the second and equalised. Things looked to be heading for a penalty shootout until United popped up with a late winner. What did we learn?
1. Martial is ready for centre-stage again
When Anthony Martial signed for Manchester United he took the no. 9 shirt and debuted as a central striker. He showed phenomenal promise and looked capable of living up to his billing as the “new Thierry Henry.” Here was a player that had it all: pace, skill, shooting. The next great United striker.
But then he gradually began playing more left-wing, which was alright because he could sill do damage from there. Except when Zlatan Ibrahimovic arrived in the summer he just took the no. 9 off Martial and he had to change to the no. 11. It could have been an innocuous switch but it did seem to genuinely bother Martial. His form tailed off and he became an inconsistent, frustrating winger. Obviously talented but someone whose production couldn’t be relied on.
This pre-season. however, he’s rotated with Marcus Rashford as United’s leading forward. Not that he hasn’t played wide too, but he’s often led the line. Today he started the game up-front and absolutely terrorised Spurs’ defence for the whole 45 minutes he was on. His movement was sublime, he smacked a shot off the post and buried United’s opening goal. With Romelu Lukaku likely to leave the club this summer, Martial could once again don his favoured no. 9 shirt, stepping back into the central role he was destined for. He’s ready to be a striker again.
2. Spurs haven’t lost their edge
If Mauricio Pochettino had any concerns that his side’s run to the Champions League final had softened their edge, made them a little bit too sure of themselves and complacent, then today’s game will have reassured him that nothing could be farther from the truth.
Spurs snapped into every tackle from start to finish against United. It wasn’t a case of them resorting to thuggery out of immaturity or desperation, they were definitely out to stamp their presence on the game. Moussa Sissoko and Dele Alli in particular were very much hammering the United players with emphatic challenges that wouldn’t look out of place in a competitive game.
New boy Tanguy Ndombele looked a bit taken aback at the sheer pace and aggression on display, though given his overwhelming class you suspect he will soon pick up the rhythm of things especially if he’s working with Sissoko every day. It must hearten Mauricio Pochettino so much to see his players take even a friendly as seriously as this. Spurs are going nowhere.
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3. McTominay has the measure of midfield
Manchester United have made attempts to sign both Declan Rice and Sean Longstaff this summer. It’s clear they want a tall defensive midfielder to either back-up or replace Nemanja Matic at the base of midfield. What we saw from this game, however, is that they may already have him in Scott McTominay.
The 22-year-old Scot had flashes of excellence last season, notably away to PSG and at home against Barcelona in the Champions League. He’s shown a predilection for the big stage, and we saw that against today. McTominay matched muscles with Moussa Sissoko and Tanguy Ndombele in the middle of the pitch and never looked overmatched. That could be huge for The Red Devils as it would allow them to direct all of their funds into their search for a centre-back, knowing that McTominay can handle midfield.
4. Are Spurs superior with Son?
Last season there was a distinct feeling amongst some football fans that Spurs were actually a more dangerous side in attack without Harry Kane in the side. On the face of it that sounds absurd because Kane is obviously world-class, but when you look at the way Spurs have evolved, the kind of side they are now, having someone like Son up-front makes all the difference.
After all in last season’s Champions League it was Son who starred to take City by the best team in the world Manchester City. Kane picked up an injury but Son scored three times across two legs to put Spurs into the semi-finals. And with Son at the head of the side, Spurs are able to play with greater pace and fluidity on the counter-attack. As good as Kane is, play with him as the striker can be constrained by his limited range of movement. But Son and Lucas can run in any direction at any speed, something that is so transformative for Pochettino’s men.
Today we saw it clear as day. Spurs were dominated in the first-half as United managed to contain Kane quite well. However in the second half they had so much more difficulty living with Son’s rampaging run and movement on the break. This season Pochettino has a big choice to make; Harry Kane is obviously his team’s best player but the team might play best with him on the bench.
5. United’s Angel shines bright
Every Manchester United goal this pre-season has been scored or created by an academy graduate. That’s a phenomenally impressive run that does indicate exactly what kind of squad Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is building at Old Trafford.
It seems like every game a United youngster gets their chance to shine. Previously Mason Greenwood and Tahith Chong have had their turn, but tonight even though Daniel James and Scott McTominay were both very good it was Angel Gomes who stole the show. The diminutive playmaker has has played well so far this pre-season, but lacked a headline-grabbing moment. Today he got that moment.
With just 10 minutes left in the game. He skipped by a challenge out on the left flank then slipped the ball to Juan Mata. The Spaniard instantly played the ball back in behind the Spurs full-back into the path of Gomes’ run. The youngster controlled the ball with a delightful touched, advanced on goal and then casually slotted it low into the far corner. It was a deliriously good goal and an example of the phenomenal talent young Gomes has in his locker. The kids are alright, but can United win anything?