To say that the nerves of the Tottenham fans who braved the trip to Old Trafford Saturday were mangled by the end of the match would probably be an accurate statement.
After all, having seen the same thing happen several times against Manchester United—whereby Spurs take a lead only to throw it away in spectacular style—watching the club hold out against the Red Devils must have been exhausting.
After two viewings, it was a lot more fun to watch Tottenham secure a fabled three points, but also more enlightening as to why the white half of North London had to hold on for dear life.
United’s tepid first-half performance had a lot to do with playing the same formation as the visitors, allowing the defensive line to have little to concern themselves with.
Sandro mirrored Shinji Kagawa for 45 minutes and Kagawa was almost anonymous during that time. Kyle Walker had little to do with Ryan Giggs, who was practically invisible going forward.
With only one center forward in Robin van Persie, Steven Caulker was given an easing-in period to establish himself as William Gallas pestered the Dutchman.
Then there was Jan Vertonghen, who showed Nani how to drive forward in the opening half, even if there were signs that the Portuguese winger might give him some trouble going the other way.
Wayne Rooney’s arrival changed the dynamics of the match but, in theory, should not have changed the defensive identity of Tottenham so much. So why did Spurs suddenly seem so perilously poised?
Part of the answer lies in the fact that United stayed in the same formation, but did not really “stay” there.
With Rooney on the pitch, Tottenham lost their spare man at the back but as Kagawa was sent off to the left side, Sandro was then free to track Rooney.
The only problem was that Kagawa did not stay on the left.
The Japanese midfielder repeatedly drifted back into the middle of the United formation: sometimes with Van Persie or Rooney going wide, sometimes with no one in that zone.
This meant that Tottenham were stuck in one-on-one battles in the middle of the defense with Walker the spare man.
Walker, of course, had little idea what to do in this instance. There was no one to track down the wing with Aaron Lennon bottling up Patrice Evra and Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick playing deep in the midfield.
His lack of knowing what to do ended up costing Spurs their second, not to mention a litany of chances including Van Persie’s big miss with 20 minutes to play.
Kagawa’s exit around that time actually proved to be a boon to the besieged Lilywhites as Danny Welbeck often stayed wider than Kagawa and did not drift infield as much.
United had more chances after that but only Carrick’s looping header ever looked like causing the team any problems, though Walker was nearly beaten by Evra on a header late.
Walker has been at fault for several goals already this season, namely because teams have ghosted players in to his inside. With Gallas not able to get out quickly in many instances, a hole has developed between the two and other clubs have exploited that ruthlessly so far.
Andre Villas-Boas needs to have a look at that particular arrangement and put a strategy in place for Walker when clubs are not attacking down the flank.
It’s currently the glaring weakness in what was otherwise a superb Saturday effort.
No Room for an Old Englishman
Sandro, as mentioned earlier, did a remarkable job in cutting Kagawa completely out of the first-half action and it’s going to be quite a battle for the returning Scott Parker to find a way to break into the first XI anytime soon.
This will be looked at in greater detail later, but Sandro’s dovetailing with Mousa Dembele has been pretty well awe-inspiring in just a little over four matches.
The two have a telepathic link already established and they know already when to push or pull depending on the other’s movement.
Sandro, though, also has added intelligent movement into the defense as part of his responsibilities and at times, if Caulker or Gallas moved up field, Sandro could be seen covering space at the back.
Parker, for all his leadership and box-to-box qualities, may have to settle in as a super-sub for either Sandro or Dembele.
The English midfielder would be comfortable in either role as a deep-lying midfielder or a more defensive passer who can move forward to link play when required.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out as Parker might be missing the boat simply because others are playing too well at the moment.
Caulk Up Another Big Performance
Steven Caulker was spared what could have been a nightmarish debut when United decided not to start Rooney up front with Van Persie on Saturday.
It has to be said that Caulker was only ever hung out to dry once during the match but that was, unfortunately, in the build-up to the first goal when Vertonghen and Dembele tucked in when Rooney received the ball on the right five minutes into the second half.
Caulker, who had moved up and out pretty far already to help create a three-on-three on the left, was left behind and could not make up the distance before Rooney hit Nani with a pinpoint cross for United’s first goal.
Aside from that, however, Caulker had a relatively comfortable outing and was not tasked with handling too many one-on-one defensive situations.
On another note, Caulker does seem to have a magnet inside his head for the ball. He has gotten on the end of several Tottenham set pieces already, including forcing the own goal at QPR a week prior, and had little difficulty in clearing multiple crosses Saturday.
It still looks like he’s playing in slow motion sometimes, but after this weekend, there can be little doubt that the 20-year-old is ready to step up into the starting XI at any time.
And it just would not be right unless we got around to Sir Alex Ferguson’s assessment on "Fergie Time" after the match.
From BBC Sport:
"They gave us four minutes [injury time], that's an insult to the game. It denies you a proper chance to win a football match."
"There were six substitutions, the trainer came on, so that's four minutes right away and the goalkeeper must have wasted about two or three minutes and they took their time at every goal kick.
"That's obvious to everyone today and it's a flaw in the game that the referee is responsible for time keeping. It's ridiculous that it's 2012 and the referee still has control of that."
It’s really the first line that had me almost in fits of laughter.
I mean, perhaps he would have liked the official to add 45 minutes of stoppage time next time to make up for the time United wasted not being on the pitch in the first half?
I must have missed the article where Arsene Wenger went on a rant about not being given a “proper chance to win a football match.”
Ferguson is partially right in his assessment: There probably should have been five minutes of added time for the match.
In the end, though, it just sounds like an attempt to shift blame for a Jekyll and Hyde performance from United that ran out of time to finish the job.
I dare say anyone will be waiting with baited breath for Ferguson to imply the same thing for a fallen foe like Wenger in the near future.