In a match that should serve as the ultimate advert for the theory that football is a game of two halves, Spurs broke one of the longest standing jinxes in Premier League era by beating Manchester United at their own back yard for the first time since 1989. Few teams have suffered at a particular ground like Spurs have at Old Trafford in the last two decades. To Spurs fans, a trip to what they surely term as Theatre of Nightmares conjures up memories of a succession of abject displays by their team, goals inexplicably chalked off, leads relinquished without fight, soft penalties conceded and other refereeing howlers. But this day, the boot was finally on the other foot as it was United who were left to rue what might have been at the end of one of the most entertaining games of the season so far.
United came into this fixture with six straight wins on the trot in all competition since the opening day defeat at Everton. Injuries to central defenders have been the primary cause for concern for Sir Alex and the resulting lack of solidity at the back would continue to haunt the team in this fixture as it has in the ones preceding it. Spurs had fewer worries on the injury front but stories regarding a dressing room revolt aimed against André Villas-Boas’ management style would have hardly made for ideal preparations before a daunting trip to Old Trafford.
Team Line Ups
Manchester United: Lindegaard, Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra, Carrick, Scholes, Nani, Giggs, Kagawa, van Persie
Tottenham: Friedel, Walker, Gallas, Caulker, Vertonghen, Sandro, Dembele, Dempsey, Lennon, Bale, Defoe
The first half
Both teams set out with a 4-2-3-1 formation but before the game could settle down to any sort of rhythm, Spurs took the lead through an unlikely source in Jan Vertonghen. The makeshift left-back caught United off-guard by drifting inside and slotting a right foot shot into the goal via a deflection of Johnny Evans. For United, it was a particularly poor goal to concede in the sense that lack of awareness from a number of players contributed to it. At the onset, Nani and Carrick were guilty of not nipping the danger in the bud by allowing Vertonghen to run inside after a neat little exchange of passes with Gareth Bale. But what would have really galled Sir Alex was the hesitancy of both Rio Ferdinand and Evans to close down the Belgian defender quickly and affording him too much space and time inside the penalty area to get a shot on target.
While a goal often sparks the team which conceded it to action, no such phenomenon was evident during the early exchanges as United failed to exert their authority on this game. The middle two of Carrick and Paul Scholes struggled to keep up with their younger counterparts in Mousa Dembélé and Sandro. Dembélé especially was fantastic and ran the show from the centre of the park. United failed to bring their wingers into the game much and while Patrice Evra did make a few overlapping runs down the left but none materialized into clear opportunities. On the other flank, the Bale factor ensured that Rafael never dared to venture forward with his customary bravado. Spurs’ centre-back pairing of Steven Caulker and William Gallas did well to keep Robin van Persie quiet all throughout the first half in which the Dutchman never really caught a glimpse of Brad Friedel’s goal.
Such was Spurs’ control on the game that few could argue that they did not deserve a two goal lead going into half-time. It was established when the excellent Dembélé slipped in a pass to Bale just past the halfway line and the Welshman, on one of his rare forays down the middle, breezed past a flailing Ferdinand and finished with low right footed drive across Anders Lindegaard. While blame cannot be attached to Ferdinand for getting outpaced by Bale at this stage in his career, the gap which opened up at the heart of United’s defence for Bale to run into displayed a disturbing lack of defensive organization.
The second half
If there is any team in the land that needs no reminding of United’s at times miraculous powers of recovery in second half of matches, then it must be Spurs. This after all was the team which led 3-0 and 2-0 against United at half-time at White Hart Lane in 2001 and Old Trafford in 2009 respectively and ended up conceding five goals without any retort in the second halves in both those matches. Manager Villas-Boas too had been introduced to this particular facet of United’s game when his Chelsea team surrendered a 3 goal lead in the second half against the same opponents last February.
As expected, after such a disjointed display in the first half, Sir Alex rung in a change by introducing Wayne Rooney in place of Ryan Giggs who never really got into the game before the break. The change meant that for the first time ever, van Persie, Kagawa and Rooney, the three most potent attacking threats in Ferguson’s locker, would all be on the pitch at the same time. A lot has been written on how the latest version of Old Trafford’s Holy Trinity would dovetail with one another. On this particular occasion, Kagawa was posted out wide on the left with Rooney playing off RVP in the traditional number 10 role. The change seemed to work as United started the second with much greater positive intent as Rooney revelled in his play-maker role by roaming all across the final third and stretching the Spurs back-line.
United were soon rewarded for their enterprise when Rooney popped up on the right-wing creating space for Nani to run into the box and the former’s pinpoint cross was toe-poked in by the latter. The goal signalled the beginning to probably the most remarkable three-minute period that we are to witness this season. Forty seconds after Nani’s goal, Spurs’ two goal cushion was restored. Jermaine Defoe did well to hold off Ferdinand in the right hand flank and thread in a delightful ball for Bale. The Welsh winger’s powerful shot was parried by Lindegaard but Clint Dempsey was on hand to pounce on the rebound. Yet again United’s lack of defensive organization was glaring as neither Evans nor Evra picked up Dempsey as the American ghosted in the gap between them to score. United’s response was instant as van Persie dropped deep and passed to Kagawa who had drifted into the space vacated by the Dutchman; the Japanese international displayed an exquisite touch and turn and expertly finished into the corner of the goal.
The atmosphere at Old Trafford was now at fever pitch as United sensed blood. There is probably no sight in sports as exhilarating as a United side chasing a game at Stretford End and next half hour was all one way traffic. Sensing the shift in momentum, Spurs dropped deeper and deeper, allowing Carrick and Scholes much greater freedom to spray passes from the middle of the park. With Spurs’ wingers Bale and Lennon now camped as auxiliary wing backs deep within their own half, Evra and Rafael kept making darting runs along the flanks. United almost got their reward as Rooney struck the post with a brilliant free kick while van Persie should have done better than screwing his shot wide when played in on goal.
Villas-Boas introduced fresh legs in the midfield in form Gylfi Sigurdsson and Tom Huddleston in place of Dempsey and Dembélé respectively but the substitutions did little to alter the course of the game. Defoe cut an isolated figure upfront as he struggled to keep hold of the ball on the rare occasions it was hoofed clear to him. Ferguson soon replaced Kagawa with Danny Welbeck to further up the ante. But even though Spurs showed a distinct lack of composure in keeping any sort of possession in the latter stages and continuously invited United onto them, their defence was resolute in the face of the resulting incessant pressure and battled hard to ensure that the United front-men were denied any clear sight of goal. The match ended with United having four strikers on the pitch following Javier Hernandez’s introduction but ultimately United were not able to make any further inroads to the Spurs backline.
As far as making statement of his own capability goes for a manager looking to rebuild his reputation in England, nothing can match a win at Old Trafford. The result should bring Villas-Boas some much-needed respite from the English press which has been unflinching in his criticism till now. The fact that Spurs entirely lost control of the game in second half and were threatened to be overwhelmed at times is possibly the only blot on his otherwise perfect day but even then he may be excused under the pretext that considering the identity of the opposition and the stage, many a manager would have felt equally helpless.
The way Spurs defended though does seem to indicate that the team spirit fostered under him within the White Hart Lane dressing is stronger than some in media would have you believe. His euphoric reactions at the final whistle was reminiscent of the celebrations of another then young Portuguese manager at the same venue when his Porto team knocked out United from Champions League in 2004. Fifteen months after following in Jose Mourinho’s steps to take charge of Chelsea, André Villas-Boas may have finally arrived.
While Spurs and their manager will be buoyed by the result, Ferguson will be left with retrospections on United’s second defeat in six games in league this season. The defence is understandably frail due to the spate of injuries but then again at United such excuses rarely make the cut. Thankfully, apart from Chelsea, none of the other title challengers have been able to capitalize on United’s injury crisis and Ferguson would be praying for some of the defenders to return to fitness before the rivals start pulling away from United. A tricky away fixture against Newcastle awaits next weekend and with Papiss Cissé and Demba Ba in the mix, things may get worse for United before they get better.