Nuno Espírito Santo was always onto a hiding at Tottenham, what with the club’s initial aversion to appointing him as Jose Mourinho’s replacement. Nuno was dismissed because of his compact style of play and deemed expensive. Weeks later, Spurs appointed him.
For a manager whose Wolves programme notes were shorter than a footnote, Nuno was laudably forthright after Arsenal embarrassed Tottenham on Sunday. “A lot of things went wrong, starting with the decisions I made,” he conceded.
“The gameplan didn’t work out. I’m very honest and I have to say that. I decided bad. I didn’t take the right decisions and I refuse to go out more further than that.”
The surge in Daniel Levy’s approval ratings that the naive Kane brothers triggered was brief. Tottenham fans pinpointed Levy as the source of their problems long ago and there is little chance of Nuno becoming the scapegoat.
It was still impressive to witness a coach starkly accept accountability for a derby defeat when, 24 hours earlier at Old Trafford, it was lacking.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer bristled at questions about the choice of penalty taker and Cristiano Ronaldo’s reaction as he strode off the pitch, punching the corner flag en route to the tunnel. Solskjaer mumbled the usual platitudes and clichés when taking accountability would be received favourably by the matchgoers.
Instead, there was another anodyne analysis of the officiating of the Premier League. The Video Assistant Referee is a subjective and inconsistent system that is as erratic as on-pitch referees, but it is here to stay. David de Gea was not getting to Kortney Hause’s header regardless of the ‘offside’.
Solskjaer’s diversion tactics are about as successful as his on-pitch tactics. He is not a natural enough orator to put them at the top of the agenda and there was karma for the pre-match carping about a shortage of penalties when Bruno Fernandes sent his spotkick into orbit.
United supporters were instead miffed at another goal conceded from a set-piece and another delayed attacking substitution. Yes, Solskjaer was compromised by the enforced withdrawals of Luke Shaw and Harry Maguire, but there was an inordinate wait for a proactive move and Edinson Cavani was not the most strategic of choices.
The tone was set with the risk-aversive midfield of Scott McTominay and Fred. They have started in three of the first six Premier League fixtures and, had McTominay not required groin surgery last month, that midfield axis might have been the same for all six matches.
United have an auspicious win percentage of 58% with McTominay and Fred in the line-up, losing just 10 out of 55 matches. They were the midfield duo in Paris, the night Gary Neville asked where Solskjaer wanted his statue to be erected.
The break-up of ‘McFred’ also had dire consequences in the Europa League final, when Solskjaer overloaded the front six, refused to drop an overplayed and underperforming Marcus Rashford and failed to make a single attacking substitution against obdurate opponents.
That’s enough diplomacy. McTominay and Fred do not have the makings of a title-challenging duo and never will. Roy Keane called it nearly a year ago: “They won’t get United back to winning league titles.”
Each player is a good, dependable squad option and there is merit to reprogramming McTominay to keep vigil at the base of midfield. But the dependence on them together undermines Solskjaer’s status; too often he does not manage like a United manager should. For all the thrashings and five-goal hauls, Solskjaer is a stickler for pragmatism, and his managerial mentality is, at times, more Molde than United.
Villa were always likely to retain a back three even without the ineligible Axel Tuanzebe, which demanded a creator in the midfield. Solskjaer erred on the side of caution, preoccupied by Villa’s front two of Ollie Watkins and Danny Ings. Imagine the fillip in the Villa dressing room when they scanned the teamsheet and saw United had deprived themselves of a fifth forward, with Jesse Lingard, Jadon Sancho and Donny van de Beek on the bench.
It is little surprise United drop points against those outside the elite when their manager is so easily caught between two stools and Villa were the latest side to be afforded an excessive amount of respect by Solskjaer. He reacted to a red card against the then fourth-placed side in the Swiss league by switching to a back three. United played for a 1-0 win, then for a 1-1 draw and got neither. They got what they deserved.
United have lost three of their last four games, departing one competition, so an inquest is obligatory. Especially after the manager selected an unchanged league XI when United were a kick away from drawing the week before.
There was no rhyme or reason to fielding the same side against Villa that had performed so sporadically at West Ham and it is inconceivable that, had Mark Noble struck the ball beyond De Gea’s reach, that Solskjaer would not have made at least one change six days later.
It is inexplicable how Fred retained his league place after a ramshackle performance in London and one can only imagine what Keane made of the Brazilian’s chuckling seconds after spooning the ball into touch.
United’s adversaries have raised the bar in recent years and Solskjaer needs to respond. If he doesn’t, he’s onto a hiding.