Let’s do it then. 93 minutes of a fascinating and, for lengthy periods, pulsating match at Old Trafford can be dismissed because only 60-odd seconds really matter, or so you would think if you followed the media this weekend. You want more, don’t you, there’s not been enough about it.
It’s a while since I’ve seen so much go wrong in such a short space of time. Kaboul was fortunate to get away with the foul on Nani, then the winger took the most definite hold of a ball since Michael Johnson’s last basket but the turning point comes a few seconds later. Clattenburg’s decisive signal that he was denying the penalty appeal was not matched with a similar sign indicating advantage. Where Gomes placed the ball is irrelevant: all keepers pinch a good few yards if there is a free-kick close to the byline. Also, the ref could easily have thought our keeper was about to shift the ball upfield quickly. Then, Gomes hesitates, he knows something is not right. Scoles and other United players are urging Nani to get over his childish sulk and get on with it. Gomes looks to the ref, hands forward, and is met with a shrug. Up to you, old son, the ball’s in play.
The linesman’s late flag was reasonable. He had every right to assume the ref knew what he was doing but just in case, he wanted to tell him about the handball. There was an interesting discussion about refs on 5 Live last night. Some refs tell their linesmen not to flag for a foul if the ref is in their quadrant. I bet Clattenburg falls into this category. He likes to be in charge and be seen to be in charge. Linesman says handball, ref says I know. If the referee allowed Ferdinand to join in because he just can’t be arsed once again to tell players to shut up and go away for the zillionth time in a match, I might have a little sympathy, as players haranguing refs drives me bananas. But for a guy who wants to be in charge, it was a sign of fatal weakness. At least it offered further evidence of what a dipstick Ferdy is, abusing the linesman even after it’s gone his way. Not like our lovely nice boys – the stream I watched replayed pictures and sounds of the Spurs players around the ref at full-time and not a swear word to be heard. So sweet.
I don’t want to defend the ref – he did not deal with this well – but in the end, play to the whistle is an adage drummed into the youngest schoolboy and I presume it’s the same in Brazil. This season, referees are allowing more advantage and they do bring the ball back if none is gained. Clattenburg could have done so here, as Nani advanced towards the ball. If the FA followed rugby’s example and issued clear guidance to referees to permit a few more seconds for the advantage to pan out, football would be a better game. I remember saying that when I was a schoolboy, too.
Gomes was daft but I feel for him. This bizarre episode will be endlessly replayed over those blooper reels, with ill-informed D-list celebs ripping the piss out of our keeper to get a cheap laugh, and I don’t want that to happen because it’s so undeserved. He’s a fine keeper who had an excellent match. Often exposed by wayward marking in front of him, he was a redoubtable last line of defence.
Now we have Harry banging on about it, including in the Sun, where he just happens to have a contract and column. He seemed philosophical at full-time, chuckling away ruefully with Fergie. If the pressure on him to comment leads to a touchline ban, he’s more stupid than the ref.
Enough already. I’m curious as to why this one incident has occupied so much attention in the media this weekend. Sure, it’s crazy in itself, let alone in a top of the table Premier League clash, but the coverage has been way over to the top. It’s not as if the match hinged on this one moment. It snuffed out our final desperate efforts to seek an equaliser but we were a goal down and flagging. To me, it’s symptomatic of one of the most harmful aspects of the modern media coverage of our great game. It is reduced into micro-moments. ‘Let’s have a look at those penalty appeals’ and the TV pundits snuggle up to replays of 37 angles before pronouncing that they’ve seen those given. Football is about the ebb and flow over time, territory fought over, assaults repulsed and swift counters, all balance and guile, sweat and toil. On Saturday, the first half in particular was a pulsating advert for the much maligned Premier League, full of open, flowing and skillful attacking football. It’s like nobody bothers about that any more.
Also, from Spurs’ point of view, the Clattenburg Clanger is a convenient smokescreen to mask the limitations of our play. Harry doesn’t want to get into this, and neither does the media, because it doesn’t fit their current perception of our team. We are getting great publicity: our squad strength is praised consistently, rightly so, and our attacking football has won friends, especially in the Champions League, where if you want goals, choose the Tottenham Hotspur option on the red button. However, take a closer look, as we fans do, and there are a couple of problems that are not going away as the season goes on.
There are genuine positives to take from the match, especially the way in which we took the game to United in the second half. It’s not much, but we forced our opponents back for lengthy periods, holding possesion and probing for the gaps. We compelled them into making changes to bolster their defensive shield, and it’s a while since you could say that about a Spurs performance at Old Trafford. Van der Vaart was again brilliant in the first half. His turn and shot utterly breathtaking. Modric took a greater part in the second half, showing how well he can perform. We were not strong up front but at least we made some chances.
But there we are, what’s going on upfront. Not much. Keane’s selection was a brave one. He played well in that role in preseason and in theory it means we could keep it on the ground. However, he was largely anonymous, so it was left to VDV to provide the punch. Pav did well enough when he came on but there’s no disguising the lack of threat from our strikers, whoever plays there.
At the back, we were far too open. If United had not been so unusually wasteful, we could have been three down by half time. I’m always talking about how the midfield fail to protect our back four, so I won’t bang on about it again. Suffice to say, Superboy may appear invulnerable but in the end he’s human too. He has to get goalside and do his fair share of defending. Too often on Saturday he was drifting in no-man’s-land, 5 or 10 yards outside our box as United got in behind us. Same goes for Lennon and Modric to some extent. I don’t wish to be over-critical of these excellent players – but they have to do it and it is holding us back because it leaves us vulnerable.
Kaboul did well once again, a fine prospect, but part of his particular learning curve is when to get in tight and when to bounce back a fraction. Against Everton and on Saturday, unnecessary free-kicks led to goals. On Saturday the error was compounded by downright useless marking in the box. It was criminal to leave Vidic with so much space. Our injuries at the back are beginning to make me maudlin. If only. If only Daws and Led were fit. If only Woody could have come back…it means so much, and could mean real might-have-beens come the end of the season.