Sheffield United sweep Tottenham aside to revive hopes of Europe

Andy Hunter at Bramall Lane
The Guardian

José Mourinho rightly condemned the damage being done to “the beautiful game” by VAR but he has more to fear than the killjoys of Stockley Park on the evidence of Tottenham’s defeat at Sheffield United. Mentally, defensively and creatively, Spurs were second best and are in danger of finishing outside the top six for the first time since 2009.

Mourinho attacked the VAR decision that disallowed an equaliser for Harry Kane at Bramall Lane, naturally, but he did not camouflage its impact on his brittle players. Spurs lost their composure and fight after Michael Oliver’s decision and were sliced apart by Chris Wilder’s wing‑backs as United leap-frogged the visitors in the pursuit of European qualification. All three of United’s goals came from the flanks and on all three occasions the Spurs defence was found wanting badly. Oli McBurnie, who sealed victory, embodied the heart and commitment that his opponents lacked.

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“We have to be mentally stronger to cope with what happened during the game,” Mourinho said. “We cannot mentally die after Michael Oliver gives a decision. I know it is very difficult to take but we have to be stronger. I know more about the profile of my players now and at half-time I feared we wouldn’t be strong enough to cope in the second half.”

United had toiled since the season restart, scoring only once in four games without a win, but this was a solid return to pre-lockdown form. There was urgency and aggression to the hosts’ attacking play from the first whistle, allied to a disciplined defensive shape and fierce work ethic that also underpinned the improvement. Were these not once the hallmarks of a Mourinho team?

An incident-free contest sparked into life when United took the lead with a well-worked team goal that flowed from left to right through Enda Stevens. George Baldock released Chris Basham and set himself for a shot when the defender returned the ball invitingly from the by-line. Sander Berge collected instead, to Baldock’s obvious annoyance, but spared himself a rollicking from his teammate by finding the far corner of Hugo Lloris’s goal with a precise drive. It was the club-record signing’s first goal in English football since his £22m arrival from Genk in January.

<span class="element-image__caption">Lucas Moura was penalised for handball before Harry Kane put the ball in the net for Spurs.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Oli Scarff/Reuters</span>
Lucas Moura was penalised for handball before Harry Kane put the ball in the net for Spurs. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Reuters

Berge’s celebrations had only just ceased when Spurs levelled through Kane. Or so everyone thought. The visiting captain beat Dean Henderson after picking up a loose ball off Lucas Moura and cutting inside Basham. The ball had cannoned off Moura when, having been fouled while running at the United defence, John Egan’s clearance struck the forward as he hit the ground. Moura’s arm touched the ball as he fell and VAR’s draconian rules meant the goal was disallowed.

Mourinho said: “I never complain to the man with the whistle because he is not the referee any more. I used to complain but now the man on the pitch is the assistant referee and today the man and lady with the flags are the assistant of the assistant referees. The referee is in the office. And when the referee is not good on the pitch you can’t expect them to be good in the office. We are going in a really bad direction for the beautiful game everyone fell in love with.”

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Oliver Norwood was fortunate to avoid a second yellow card when he caught Son Heung-min with an elbow, moments after picking up his first booking and having made little attempt to play the ball. Spurs’ evening deteriorated thereafter.

The visitors lacked ingenuity to disrupt United’s defensive shape and concentration to prevent Wilder’s team extending their lead. The Blades’ second stemmed from the tireless efforts of McBurnie. The striker worked the ball out to Stevens and he combined superbly with Ben Osborn, who capped his first Premier League start with a fine reverse touch to the left wing-back. Stevens had time and space to pick out Lys Mousset and the substitute striker, left completely unmarked by the sleeping Eric Dier and Ben Davies, tapped home.

McBurnie received his reward with the third. Spurs were again undone by a marauding wing-back, this time Baldock on the right. He released Berge inside the area with a cheeky flick and the midfielder centred low for McBurnie to turn the ball past Lloris from close range.

The visitors were defensively weak once more, McBurnie stealing in ahead of Davinson Sánchez after being left by Erik Lamela. Kane’s 90th-minute tap-in from Son’s cross meant the England captain has now scored against all 29 Premier League teams he has faced. He will not dwell on the consolation for long.

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