We witnessed a weird game last night. Manchester United didn’t play well at all but ended with a score-line that we barely deserved and one that didn’t quite tell the true story of the match. We have been here before; if you are trying to recall when, let me remind you. It was in the early months of the season when we entertained another London club, Chelsea at Old Trafford. That match was made weirder by the incredible miss of our nemesis, Fernando Torres. Last night at White Hart Lane, our good record against Tottenham Hotspurs was upheld and Spurs would be left wondering what more do they need to do to beat us. A visit to a witch doctor might help Spurs but I don’t encourage it at all.
Let’s just take a look at our past encounters against Tottenham. We should have lost to them at Old Trafford in 2004 when Pedro Mendes scored a “ghost” goal after Roy Carroll made a huge fumble of gathering his shot from 50 yards. Then there were the come-from-behind wins at White Hart Lane in 2001 and at home in 2009. Last season, Spurs had the better of the game at White Hart Lane but we somehow squeezed a point and the story looked similar this season. United started brightly and sharply but lost control of the midfield as we sat too deep allowing Spurs to dictate play. From Sir Alex Ferguson’s post-match comments, I gathered that it was a tactical ploy but it nearly backfired as United struggled to keep possession. Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes were out-runned by the younger pair Sandro and Jake Livermore in Spurs midfield. Every time a United player got the ball, Spurs did a great job at hounding the players and forcing them to play it backwards and face their own goal. In contrast, we allowed Spurs too much time on the ball to play their own game and exert control and dominance over United.
Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck were starved of possession and when they had it, they hardly could keep it. Nani was probably playing more defensively than he has ever done in his entire life as a footballer while Ashley Young on the other flank didn’t have much of the ball as we were kept in our own halves. Hardly ever did we venture into Spurs half. Spurs, for all their dominance, only threatened David De Gea once when he had to make a good, sharp save. The central defensive pair of Jonny Evans and Rio Ferdinand was imperious at the back as they had their hands full dealing with Emmanuel Adebayor and ex-Red Devil, Louis Saha. Phil Jones at right back always looked like he was in the wars and looked ready to be substituted due to injury but he kept going and although at times he did give us some heart attacks due to his all-action style of play which resulted in some rash challenges, he did his job pretty well. Patrice Evra was dealing with the diminutive Aaron Lennon and it was an interesting battle which our French captain shaded. However there were times when he was beaten too easily but he had good cover behind him.
Spurs had a goal correctly disallowed for handball. The culprit was Adebayor who used that same trick to get a goal for Arsenal at Old Trafford in 2008 but it was not happening for him this time. On one of our rare forays forward, we got a corner, our first one in the entire match in the 44th minute. A minute later, from our second corner, we were 1-0 up; the cruelty of football. We celebrated because we knew how much this goal meant in such a big match where three points were a necessity. We celebrated like as if we had got a Get Out of Jail card and we delivered the first sucker punch at Spurs at the most opportune of time to leave them deflated and frustrated going into the break. The goal itself was a result of a good set-piece; Young put in the ball at pace and Rooney was on hand to get ahead of his marker and apply some significant touch off his head to give us a lead.
Will the second half now see United charging back and play like we know they can? Not quite. They did attempt to push further forward to close Spurs down in their half but Spurs still had the upper hand. De Gea was called upon again to make a big save and with the help of Evans repelled another attack from Spurs only this time it was closer to goal than their previous attacks. Then we went forward and got a second! A second sucker punch delivered at Spurs. A throw-in on United’s right picked up Nani who was unmarked and managed to get away from the attentions of the attack-minded Luka Modric, he put in a good cross that was sliced away by the Spurs defence and it landed nicely for an acrobatic, precise effort by Young. The Englishman on the basis of this performance and the week he has had, is gradually regaining confidence and form at the right time. He scored one for England in midweek and in the previous week, set up Ryan Giggs for the clincher. In one of our next attacks, Young had the final word as he curled an effort stupendously beyond the reach of his ex-Villa team-mate, Brad Friedel in goal from outside the box.
It was only after that goal which had well and truly taken the wind out of the Spurs sails did United finally have a sustained period of possession and dominated. As it is common practice this season, United opted to pass the ball sideways instead of forwards perhaps this time feeling guilty to be 3-0 ahead having not played well at all. In one of our meaningless keep ball session to wind down the clock, we got a pass wrong and the culprit was none other than the milestone man himself, Ryan Giggs who played the ball into Jermain Defoe’s path who went forward almost unchallenged and let fly from outside the box to give the home side a deserved goal. The defence and De Gea had stopped playing by then. That goal woke United out of a nap they frequently like to take in matches when they are in control of nowadays and we were on our toes to prevent a second Spurs goal which would in turn prevent a tense finale to the game ensuing.
At the end of it all, we know the score; Tottenham Hotspurs 1 Manchester United 3. United got the vital 3 points that would have disgusted our neighbours who were hoping for a favour from the North London side. The blue half of Manchester must be wondering how we keep winning even without playing well. To that, the answer is that the belief the side has in each other and the manager has in the team and vice versa as well as the resilience and strength of character; all the hallmarks of a champion team. United have adopted this approach a lot more than relying on the free-flowing, attacking football that we are famed for in the recent past. It is an approach that is more Italian and German than English but we are still winning. However, I believe I speak for the fans when I say that we demand good, free-flowing attacking style of football from United all the time. It is unrealistic but this is what we expect of Manchester United and this is why we love the club so much. The love also means that through thick and thin, no matter how ugly the football can get, we will still be behind the team but realistically, the performances need some improvement and for the team to start moving through the gears to reach our top form.
We have just navigated a tough run of fixtures but United know very well that complacency would kill us if we start taking the rest of the matches lightly. Many times this season, the ugly head of complacency has reared its head to spoil performances and games. It’s time we eradicate it once for all and there is no better time than now to start. Please stop going into a mid-game slumber and please stop rolling around playing dead. Give us the good football again and the goals. Next up would be a tough fixture against Spanish side Athletic Bilbao in the Europa League. We have not had a good record against Spanish teams in recent past and in Europe we have only won once at home. Teams playing against United and at Old Trafford don’t fear us. Bring back the fear factor, Red Devils! It’s all in your hands, legs and minds.