DOMINANT DEVILS

‘Pouting’ Ronaldo must not overshadow emphatic display by Red Devils

The wins against Liverpool and Arsenal were excellent but United had to dig deep at times in both of those victories.

In Summary

The sight of pouting substitute Cristiano Ronaldo stalking down the tunnel before the end of a 2-0 victory that flattered mediocre Spurs must not overshadow a highly impressive performance.

Manchester United's Antony, Fred and Bruno Fernandes celebrate during their match against Tottenham Hotspur
Manchester United's Antony, Fred and Bruno Fernandes celebrate during their match against Tottenham Hotspur
Image: HANDPOUT

Erik ten Hag’s increasing influence on Manchester United was in evidence as Tottenham went the same way as Liverpool and Arsenal in front of an Old Trafford gallery growing in optimism and confidence.

Manager Ten Hag’s catastrophic start at United, which began with the embarrassment of a home defeat to Brighton followed by the fiasco of a 4-0 loss at Brentford, is now a bad memory rather than current reality. And this was the finest performance of a managerial tenure still in its infancy.

The sight of pouting substitute Cristiano Ronaldo stalking down the tunnel before the end of a 2-0 victory that flattered mediocre Spurs must not overshadow a highly impressive performance.

United flourished without the great Portuguese, showing drive, verve and intensity that was all too much for a Spurs side showing a negative mindset that is too often politely dressed up as a “counter-attacking style”.

The wins against Liverpool and Arsenal were excellent but United had to dig deep at times in both of those victories. This was dominant, emphatic — far more so than the scoreline reflects.

This was on another level, with some thrilling football delighting United’s fans in just the way Ten Hag demands.

United had 28 shots on target — the most by any team in a Premier League match this season — 19 coming in a high-quality first 45 minutes that required Spurs goalkeeper Hugo Lloris to make five top-class saves, the dangerous Antony also clipping the post.

Fred’s deflected shot and Bruno Fernandes’ curling finish gave United at least a measure of what they deserved and delivered further evidence that they are heading in the right direction.

United will have targeted a place in the Premier League’s top four at the start of the season as a highly satisfactory rehabilitation from last year’s nightmare under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and then Ralf Rangnick. To win against Liverpool, Arsenal and Spurs suggests this must be a realistic aim after their horrendous start.

United remain fifth and Spurs third but there was no doubt who was the happier manager, and who looked like the team with the handbrake released, as visiting boss Antonio Conte cut a frustrated, agitated figure.

Ten Hag’s team were on the attack from the off, Diogo Dalot and Luke Shaw progressive full-backs while Casemiro and the excellent Fred patrolled midfield.

Only Lloris stood between United and the goals they deserved as they poured forward, the Frenchman forced to excel twice more from Marcus Rashford after the break. As for Spurs, what a stodgy disappointment they were.

There is defending deep in that counter-attacking set up and there is handing the initiative to eager opponents. See the loss at Arsenal. See the loss here at Manchester United. The tactics are not exactly successful.

Spurs are still third but even their own fans know a team containing the attacking talents of Harry Kane and Son Heung-min should be offering more of a threat than this.

Conte is, of course, one of the world’s great coaches so who are we to doubt him? No-one, however, can escape the feeling that Spurs are capable of so much more. This was a desperately conservative performance that got exactly what it merited.

As for United, this was a win and display that will grow reserves of self-belief, achieved without Ronaldo, whose only headline-grabbing contribution was his disappearance before the end of the game.

Whatever the explanation, Manchester United is not run for the benefit of Cristiano Ronaldo and surely it should not be beyond him to stay until the final whistle to congratulate his victorious team-mates.

It was not a good look and only added to the growing impression that he is increasingly an outsider to what Ten Hag wants to build at Old Trafford.

The spotlight should shine on Ten Hag and those who did such a superb job of dispatching Spurs to further cement United’s top-four credentials.

Ten Hag said Ronaldo’s premature, petulant departure was a matter for tomorrow, as tonight was the time to savour the sort of victory and performance that was exactly what he had in mind when he left Ajax to join this fallen giant.

And he was absolutely right.