For an hour this was arguably Spurs’ best performance of the season. United fought to come to terms with the unusual experience of being pushed back deep into their own half, of struggling to get hold of the ball, of being unable to break free. All this effort and hard won superiority was thrown away in three mad moments of shoddy defending. Ultimately the match became a sober reminder of both how far we’ve come and what remains to be done.
History will always recall the breathtaking pace, flowing movement and stunning goals that shattered Villa, Newcastle and Norwich amongst others but this was the supreme test, the champions as they peak once again for the run-in to the league title. After a sticky start when we appeared as rusty as our opponents were classy, we gradually imposed our will on the game. To see this unfold before your eyes is a rare and inspiring delight, to see the team come to terms with a few problems, work them out and then proceed to dominate for long spells against the very best. This isn’t just about good individuals. Rather, it’s the team as a living organism, one where it’s possible to peek inside and see how it adapts to new conditions.
Welbeck’s pace and Rooney’s dash looked ominously good early on. The determination of our makeshift central midfield paring of Sandro and Livermore took them forward but as they pressed, United exploited the gaps they left behind in front of the back four. However, Spurs made sure this did not last for long. Pause for thought plus some sharp finger jabbing from King and they adjusted their starting positions. Remaining a fraction deeper provided the required cover and enabled them to time their forward movement better. Modric, playing wide left from necessity, looked for the ball and found in Assou Ekotto a willing helper. As the half went on, Benny drove us onward, teamwork and early passes of the highest order.
No Bale so Lennon had to provide the pace to up the tempo and make something of our increasing possession. He did well, pressurising defenders and switching wings to set up Saha for a glorious opportunity. For the second time in three weeks, a Spurs player contrived to get in the way and Abebayor was penalised for handball. Earlier, Manu missed the best chance of the half, clean through but De Gea saved low to his left. It felt as if Many could have put his foot through the ball rather than open himself up, which often means less force cam be applied to the shot.
The crowd were agitated by some of the possession football but it’s so hard to break United down. Livermore and Sandro showed great poise and purpose, keeping the ball on the move, never resting and unafraid to get stuck in when necessary. Although he gave the ball away in a couple of dangerous situations, Livermore once more showed his promise. He does something off, but doesn’t blink. Just gets on with it, his game is apparently unaffected by the ups and downs. He clashed with the master Scholes, didn’t bat an eyelid. No respecter of reputations, he’s in the process of making a bit of a reputation himself. As a result, Scholes and Carrick were pushed back, Rooney forced into midfield to help out. As far as teamwork goes, this was as good a period as I’ve seen this year, up there with the closing minutes of the City game where our opponents turned this way and that in frustration but could not find a way through.
Then a free kick is awarded against Sandro. I’ve not seen a replay but it looked soft at best, non-existent more accurately. Either way, I still can’t believe he was booked. Trouble is, the next time the ball left that area of the pitch was when we kicked off after going a goal down. The teams left the field at half-time to a tumult of derision directed toward the referee yet it’s not his fault that we can’t defend a simple corner. Giving Rooney a free header is naive in the extreme. Was it Walker who lost him? In the second half, Rooney protested as his new marker, Sandro, roughed him up before a corner but the damage had already been done. Walker on Rooney doesn’t seem the best match-up to me: one for the coaches to think about.
To their credit, Spurs picked up after half time where they left off. The tempo and ball-retention was good, Lennon looked promising and United seldom got near our goal. Then, one of those how-did-he-get-there-why-isn’t-anyone-near-him-surely-the-ref-has-stopped-play moments. Benny threw up his arms in incredulity even as he turned to cover Nani’s run. A moment’s doze at a throw-in but a second later the game was lost. Luka should have done more to prevent the run in the first place, Walker at least got a tricky ball away from the goal but not far enough and Young scored. Soon after, as we obligingly backed off Young had a training-ground run-up to prepare his favourite long range curler.
Only then did United fully assert themselves and passed the ball around until the final whistle.When Defoe scored I didn’t even stand up but it was well-taken. United were never going to repay our defensive generosity. So many dispiriting afternoons against United in recent years, you would have thought that I would have got used to them by now but this was utterly dispiriting because we had played so, so well. The defending was appalling: it’s pointless playing so well if we come up with that sort of cack. Nothing to do with United being able to bounce back: we should not have given them the chance. However, United are a benchmark and if we are to aspire to their status, we have to take our chances when they come and concentrate for 90 minutes, not 89 minutes and 50 seconds. That’s all it was, in total. Switching off for 10 seconds and the game we dominated for large swathes of time has gone.
Plenty of good things to hold on to as the gap narrows, starting with 4 points, the way we played, our refusal to be intimidated and the return of Bale, Rafa and Parker. Rafa’s presence yesterday could have been the difference as Saha was largely ineffective. I sometimes wonder about the callers to 606 – yesterday in the midst of understandably exasperated Spurs fans blaming the ref, Saha, the ref again, one guy said Redknapp had taken us as far as he could and should be sacked. The evidence – the last three results. Now there are ups and downs in my relationship with Harry but I’d hang on a bit. If being the third best team in the country is the level we’re currently on, we’ve been there since about November. This guy had obviously had enough of waiting, it was three months after all, but personally I’m going to offer HR a little more of my patience.
‘One Love’ proclaimed the banner. That doesn’t seem quite right for Redknapp. The team maybe, the shirt for a lifetime, but not the manager however well he’s done. I’ve criticised him for his tactics over the last two games but he returned to a familiar 4-4-2 and we looked better for it. I would have chosen Defoe ahead of Saha but Harry had to play with his new toy. I’m not a huge Defoe fan but he’s done well this year and would have done more when we didn’t have the ball. Interesting that Walker hardly got forward – instructions clearly, perhaps to stop Evra and Young teaming up. Oh, and one more thing – dodgy keeper so we should have put him under more pressure on crosses and set pieces.
Finally, no complaints at all about motivation. That answered any queries about how the NLD defeat would hit us. We need to hold our nerve, remember what we do well and keep doing it. In the same way we effectively rote off the early season defeats against the Manchester clubs, CL qualification will be secured by how well we do in the run of tough but winnable games that follow the Chelsea match through to the end of the season.