When Jose Mourinho attempts to rally his Manchester United troops for a Premier League clash with Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday, he’ll know he can’t simply copy a fabled three-word team-talk from the Sir Alex Ferguson playbook.
Facing Spurs at home as they honed in on one of their many Premier League titles, Ferguson walked into the dressing room, looked at his players, uttered ‘Lads, it’s Tottenham’ and exited as quickly as he’d entered, leaving his cast of ruthless winners to do the rest.
That was the difference between Tottenham and the Premier League’s top clubs; whilst nobody doubted the Lilywhites’ creative quality, they lacked the grit, determination and industriousness needed to truly succeed in the English top flight.
That creativity could easily be quashed by simply bullying Spurs out of the game, and whenever Tottenham did find enough backbone to occasionally challenge for the English crown, they eventually fell apart just as the must-win fixtures came thick and fast.
But when Manchester United travel to White Hart Lane this weekend, Mourinho will know his side much match Spurs’ aggression and energy at a bare minimum to stand any chance of returning to Old Trafford with at least a point. Tottenham may have fallen short in this season’s title race, but that has nothing to do with their age-old criticism of style over substance; they’ve simply ran out of steam at the end of another furiously fought campaign under Mauricio Pochettino.
Make no mistake about it, Tottenham are now the toughest side to beat in the Premier League. They’ve lost the fewest games of any side in the division this season, have conceded the fewest goals and have dropped just four points at home after 18 games. That gives ‘Lads it’s Tottenham’ a whole new meaning – one that implores the opposition to bring their A-game and prepare to work excruciatingly hard, or else face being out-run and out-powered by the Premier League’s most energetic, ambitious and fearless side.
Spurs can still delight in attack – only Chelsea have scored more goals than them this season – but when the link-up play isn’t quite so fluid and their creativity isn’t so forthcoming, they have the backbone and physicality to find victory in another way – by running the opposition into the ground.
That may seem a poorly-timed declaration considering Tottenham’s last result was a shock 1-0 defeat to bitter rivals West Ham placed 35 points behind them in the Premier League table, echoing their crumble after going 2-0 up at Stamford Bridge last season only for Chelsea to come back and win Leicester City the title.
But the showdown at the London Stadium wasn’t about bottle-jobbery or ‘Spursing it up’; Tottenham have battled their way into two consecutive Premier League title races with more modest transfer budgets, wage structures and squad depth than the rest of the division’s elite clubs – their young, sprightly cast just couldn’t find the energy, both physically and mentally, to push themselves over the line one more time, during what was a valiant effort in east London. Two seasons of relentlessly hard work eventually wore them down, unfortunately a few games too early.
Nonetheless, if Manchester United are to beat Tottenham this weekend, they’ll need something more than simply willpower and a winners’ mindset. They’ll need quality, intelligence and attacking flair too, if they’re to break down the toughest side in the Premier League.
Whilst Spurs have proved under Mauricio Pochettino they possess all of that in abundance, the same can’t yet be said for Mourinho’s United cast. “Lads, it’s Tottenham,” are three words that should now strike fear into the hearts of the Red Devils.