And yet the smart money is on Mauricio Pochettino staying put at Tottenham next season, overachieving on a relative shoestring and grappling with the same old problems.
United beat Spurs because they have spent lavishly — not least on a world-class midfielder, Paul Pogba, and a world-class keeper, David De Gea.
For all Pochettino’s talents, the upkeep on this Spurs squad has been neglected and the cracks are beginning to show.
They ended this match without a specialist central midfielder after Moussa Sissoko limped off before half-time and Harry Winks was withdrawn late on.
Harry Kane hobbled away at the final whistle with an ankle injury and Spurs have no replacement of anywhere near the class as the England skipper.
Son Heung-min was only even here because Pochettino had begged the South Korean FA to give him special dispensation to miss the opening couple of games of the Asia Cup in Dubai, where he has now headed.
Tottenham’s relative financial constraints mean that Pochettino is a beggar not a chooser.
Spurs would have beaten United had it not been for De Gea — part keeper, part illusionist — making 11 saves, many of them good and one which defied belief.
Yet Tottenham’s slim titles hopes are over after a sixth league defeat and it will be difficult to battle for cups with a squad thinning by the day.
Pochettino remains United’s No 1 choice to become Jose Mourinho’s permanent successor but the Argentine is likely to be frustrated on two fronts.
First, the fact that Daniel Levy is determined to stick his fingers in his ears and ignore the noises coming out of Old Trafford, knowing his gifted manager will still have four years left on his contract.
As a negotiator, United’s Ed Woodward is not in the same league as Levy.
Then there is the gathering momentum of this extraordinary Ole Gunnar Solskjaer love-in — United’s supporters revelling in a passionate reunion with an old flame they never stopped pining for.
They’ve sung about the Norwegian at every match for all the years he’d been away – ‘oh what a night, late in May in 1999' and ‘Alan Shearer was f*****g dearer, please don’t take my Solskjaer away’.
And Solskjaer is milking their affections for all they are worth.
He is determined to land the full-time job and Sir Alex Ferguson, whose clout should never be underestimated, is doing nothing to discourage it.
All in all, it looks increasingly as though Pochettino will not head to United.
And while Pochettino has his supporters at Real Madrid, the president Florentino Perez, is thought to prefer a reunion with Mourinho.
The Bernabeu board have rarely allowed footballing reason to prevail over a showbiz name. So Poch may well be stuck.
Of course, it is hardly like grafting at a coal face.
An £8million salary and Champions League football at a new stadium — which, despite its almost mythical status, looks stunning.
There will be plenty of powerful PR around the new White Hart Lane with its mirrored tunnels and cheese rooms and presumably a unicorn enclosure too.
In the meantime, on the electronic displays around the Wembley perimeters, Spurs boast about their network of supporters’ clubs from Kathmandu to San Diego.
A global brand, with a global fan base in a world-class home.
But the squad? Not so much.
Spurs famously became the first club in Premier League history to buy no one in a summer transfer window and are more intent on selling than buying in the January sales.
Over the previous three years, Spurs have spent £180m on ten players, some of whom have been decent but none of whom have been game-changers.
Paulo Gazzaniga, Davinson Sanchez, Juan Foyth, Serge Aurier, Fernando Llorente, Lucas Moura, Victor Wanyama, Vincent Janssen, Georges-Kevin N’Koudou and Sissoko.
For a Champions League club, this has been a patch-up job, largely due to the costs of the stadium move.
Pochettino has worked wonders under such restrictions. He inspires awe and loyalty, especially in his younger players.
But there is only so far he can go by promoting youth and signing players short of the highest class.
Christian Eriksen and Toby Alderweireld have yet to agree to new contracts beyond next season and they are two of Tottenham’s best. Winks, now 22, has been a pet project of Pochettino’s.
He is a gifted player who gives and goes in neat and tidy fashion but on a couple of occasions Pogba schooled him yesterday.
When United scored, thanks to a laser-guided diagonal pass from Pogba and a surgical finish from Marcus Rashford, Hugo Lloris might have turned it around the post. De Gea would have.
Kieran Trippier’s crosses were Tottenham’s most effective weapons. But United are looking for a right-back themselves and Trippier is not paid like a player who tore it up at last summer’s World Cup.
After the break, it was all De Gea — one save from Alderweireld, with his feet at the near post, was breathtaking.
Kane and Dele Alli, in particular, were left cursing their luck.
But losing six league matches by mid-January isn’t all about fortune.
Pochettino’s admirable team are doing better than they should be.
Yet, unlike United and Real, resources are strictly limited. As expectations ought to be, too.
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