Spurs against Manchester United remains one of the grand fixtures, especially to an old fogey like me. A noon kick-off left everyone struggling to get in on time and in the right frame of mind. Halfway through the second half it was very different. Full-blooded and rumbustious, the Spurs players had got stuck in and so had the crowd. It felt good to be part of it; the anger and exhilaration meant the blood was flowing as Tottenham finished the stronger.
Finishing on such an optimistic note feels good and that feeling lasts. In the interests of objectivity however, Spurs could, should have been at least two down after an hour. Despite the quality and fame of their players, the managers remain the dominant influence over their respective sides and in the tactical battle, Van Gaal came out on top in the first half.
Width was the key, as it so often is. Spurs had Townsend and Chadli as the wide men of our forward midfield in our customary 4-2-3-1, no contest against the wingbacks in United’s 3-5-2. Time and again the Mancs cleverly drew play to one side before switching to Young on our right who usually had time to take a deep breath, scratch his bum and get comfortable before Townsend got anywhere near him. Chiriches is a mistake waiting to happen at the best of times and left so exposed, he stood little chance.
For his part, Pochettino drew a picture in his mind of our wide men pressuring the wingbacks so they could not get forward and also exploiting the space to either side that is the potential weakness of any back three. However, that proved to be a delusion that stems from his admittedly admirable attacking instincts as neither Townsend nor Chadli would commit to their defensive duties or in the latter’s case, matching the hard work of their opposite numbers.
As a result, Young was being waved through and Pochettino did nothing to change it. With Kane increasingly isolated versus three central defenders, our attacks became so rare they were worthy of a valuation on the Antiques Roadshow. It didn’t help that we developed a new free-kick routine – pass it to a man under pressure then lose it. Yet amidst this rank stupidity there was just a niggle that United were not all that if they could be put under pressure.
And then there was Hugo. United made a series of chances throughout the half but Lloris kept them at bay. In so doing he showed the full range of his magnificence. At point-blank range he pushed out a header then perfectly timed his knee-high tackle to deny Van Persie in the act of shooting. The best was a gravity-defying leap to spear wide Young’s far-post curler that was destined for the top corner. Twice he got down and dirty, everything behind the ball as we improbably scrambled the ball away from deep inside our 6 yard box. After one save he held the ball aloft in triumph as if it were a prized trophy. We owe him a huge debt of gratitude, not just for yesterday but for a series of outstanding performances this season.
The back four showed application and spirit throughout. Vertonghen made several good tackles, Fazio was typically strong in the air and credit to Chiriches for three vital blocks, two in quick succession right after kick-off before his team-mates were awake and one off the line. However, we relied to a bottom-clenching extent on the defensive strategy that has served us so well lately, the cunning ‘let’s wait for the other team to miss’ ploy. This was seen in full effect away to Leicester, where we stood back and watched the bottom side in the league create chance after chance. Fortunately they contrived to miss them, but this is United, and you don’t expect Falcao, Van Persie and Mata to fluff their lines. Falcao was clear through, it seemed to take an age when the evening replay showed he had in fact only a fraction of a second to react, but his shot was closer to a toddler kicking a balloon in the living room. It gently plopped into Hugo’s hands.
A couple of those misses were early in the second half but gradually, imperceptibly Spurs gained the initiative. Mason and Stambouli worked extremely hard with the latter showing a positional discipline that has been absent until now. We stopped United’s supply at source, preventing them from using the ball efficiently and limiting the wingbacks’ attacking influence.
Without doing anything spectacular, Spurs had position and possession. Now when the ball was in midfield, more often than not we came away with it. Kane was outstanding. Outnumbered up front on his own, he was tireless and intelligent. Always available, when the ball reached him he was never content just to be there but tried to move it on, often taking it towards the United defence and taking on three of four defenders in the process. It did not always work but that’s not the point – United could never settle because of him. In a fine season, his best performance so far.
Eriksen used to start brightly and fade. Now he comes into his own in the second half. I would have got the subs on earlier, Dembele’s strength would have been handy.
Our best chance encapsulated our second half in a single move. Kane carried the ball onwards against the odds and slid it through to the onrushing Mason, who came from nowhere it seemed. In fact he must have run fully 70 yards from deep in our half to get on the end of it. He blasted over and beat the ground in frustration but he was there.
More evidence of progress. The effort and application, a settled centreback pairing paying dividends, coming on strong at the end. Yet we remain a team of contradictions. Ludicrously giving the ball away at free-kicks, a lack of protection for our full-backs in particular and the back four in general, we should not have to rely on the opposition missing so often. I didn’t do a boxing day match report, but read Villa, Hull and Swansea only more so. We defended diabolically. Odd to stress this given our recent good run of results but it has to be said.
It’s where we are, a side in development, some good things, some bad. We finished the hungrier and more ambitious, our fitness levels carrying the momentum until the end. I strongly suspect United came off the park envious of that commitment and that’s not something I could have written at any point in the past about this fixture. That was absent earlier in the season. It’s the foundation for the success of any side and that’s got to be a very good thing indeed.