The unexpected victories are often the best. If you truly thought Spurs could beat United, I take my hat off to you, because I didn’t, and enjoyed this win more than most precisely for that reason. Every player exceeded my expectations and the manager’s tactics and motivation were spot on.
Sure, we nearly threw it all away – more of giving away goals and penalties later – but this is Spurs, and the overall performance more than compensated for the tension of the last 15 minutes. A lovely win.
A lot has been made of Sherwood’s 4-4-2 and his comments about liking to take a few risks. What’s more significant is the variation he has employed, partly to adjust the set-up to the demands of different opponents, partly to compensate for injuries and suspensions beyond his control and partly as an element of his crash-course in How To Be A Premier League Manager.
Having smoothly disposed of a weak but negative Stoke side, Sherwood faced the very different challenge of defending against United for lengthy periods. When United had the ball, we kept a familiar shape but everyone dropped five yards deeper whereas against other teams we have pressed near the halfway line. The full-backs conspicuously did not get forward very much except on the break or on a run from deep when they were covered by a team-mate. Eriksen stayed wide left.
As a result, we were better than we usually are at stopping crosses at source and it was only when the Reds began to bang them in late on that we looked in any consistent danger. Hardly surprising – we tired after massive effort for the whole game and by then United were playing a 0-10 formation with virtually an entire team of forwards.
Key again was Abebayor with another excellent performance. His movement for the goal bamboozled Smalling into submission. He foraged deeper, dropping off with or without the ball and leaving Soldado usually the furthest forward. However, they interchanged as required. The pass before the pass for the assist in both Spurs goals came from the Spaniard, cut free from his anchorage at the edge of the box under AVB. Manu thus got in the way of United’s attempts to build from the back, although Cleverly and Carrick were inconsequential, while Lennon kept Evra fully occupied so he seldom was able to get forward.
Sherwood is a good communicator too. The players could not have responded in a better manner. Their effort and application was universally excellent, the tempo high when we had possession. Capoue was solid and economical, providing a sound base. I like him: good positional sense, an awareness of what’s going on around him, he wins it then gives it quickly. In one terrific move from defence to attack before half-time, he touched the ball 6 or 7 times, keeping it moving. Alongside him, Dembele is ferociously active.
With Eriksen we have the Modric Conundrum – he can play there but it’s not his best position. But he’s clever – witness his popping up on the right to cross the ball plumb onto Manu’s forehead for a classic far-post header, our opener. Plus he’s involved. He may like being the number 10, it may yet be his best position but his whole attitude and demeanour has changed for the better since he dropped back because he’s on the ball much more and is willing to take that responsibility. He’s eager and wants to play, which come to think of it sums up what Sherwood has done with the whole of the side. Like Redknapp at his best, Tim has given each player a role that suits them, as opposed to AVB who persisted with square pegs in round holes. Even the subs leapt to their feet in delight when we scored.
I haven’t mentioned Lennon yet. He should have crowned a fine performance with a goal, hitting De Gea early on when clean through then sliding the ball wide from the left in the second half. It would have made the game safe but as it was we had to endure another fractious and nerve-shredding 15 minutes or so. He should also have had a first-half assist when poor Soldado failed to convert his low cross at the far post.
Lennon did set up our second, his deflected cross from the right bouncing into the area. Valencia rocked back on his heels, apparently transfixed, whereas Eriksen delightedly pounced on the opportunity to dive forward and head it home. I thought De Gea could have had stronger hands and done more but then again I was in mid-air, not analysing. United never coped with his pace and it’s noticeable how well he not only times his runs from deep but also the angles he decisively employs, dashing into space where it hurts the defence most.
After a bright start when Welbeck nearly scored and Hugo punched the ball away from outside the box (no foul), it was strange to see United so ineffective near our box for lengthy periods, but hey, I could easily get used to this. Apparently however this is not our destiny. Two up, we immediately came over all Spursy and conceded immediately. Could not have been more convenient for the Mancs – Chiriches let Welbeck run behind him, good finish – but the real problem was the ease with which the pass from deep reached him. No pressure on the ball.
Predictably this gave United momentum for the rest of the match and we were under intense pressure. Adebayor was carried off and we were more vulnerable for that loss. However, Lloris made four good saves plus a diving defensive header from the edge of his box that reached past the halfway line! Saves and bodies in the way, fighting spirit., Moyes cunningly moved Rooney, their most dangerous player, back to deep midfield and confused his team with his substitutions, so we made it.
Apart from one scare. Better to be a lucky manager than a good one, as the saying goes? Late on, Lloris launched himself wildly at Young, took him out at both ankle (right foot) and waist (left foot) but no penalty. After the Mendes “goal” and the Gomes “penalty”, I indulged in a moment’s karma and could not resist a chuckle at Moyes’ ashen-faced post-match apoplexy even though he was right in hammering the ref for a lousy decision.
I thought Smalling handled an innocuous cross in the first half when under no pressure but MOTD showed a replay. Not part of a narrative that focussed on United’s bad luck over the decisions rather than Spurs’ excellent performance that warmed this slightly soggy heart and soul.
Thanks to everyone for their good wishes after my flood and the loss of my Spurs programmes – frankly touching response, deeply appreciated. I will spare their blushes but the three best-known Spurs authors are kind, generous and entirely worthy of any money you invest in their books, so buy them. The piece is really about the hold the club has on our passions and emotions, which is the single most important theme of this blog, and that woe betide those who seek to undermine that. A very Happy New Year to you all.