Tottenham Hotspur vs. Manchester United: 6 Things We Learned
Fit-again Wayne Rooney didn't make the team; Nani and Scholes didn't make the match-day squad. And for once Shinji Kagawa played in his best position. Danny Welbeck kept his berth thanks to a Man of the Match performance against Liverpool.
The big surprise was Phil Jones playing in midfield. He also is fit, and Sir Alex wants to give him as many games as possible.
Until 2:50 p.m. the match was not certain to go ahead, with snow falling in London for much of the day and tons of it needing clearing from the pitch before the referee gave the go-ahead.
The big question was how much of a factor the snow would be. Theoretically it favoured United. They had a sub-zero game on Wednesday and trained in Arctic conditions for much of the week, before travelling to London.
There was absolutely no reason for the game not to be played. Sir Alex was apparently keen, but Spurs were perhaps more reluctant. On reflection, a fixture pile-up may have been preferable to the outcome for United.
We are seeing increasing evidence that Roman Abramovich was premature in dispensing with Andre Villas-Boas. He has twice outsmarted Sir Alex this season. His team can play with real verve.
But how good are they?
Spurs Are Not Good Enough to Win a Title, Yet
Make no mistake: This was an effective performance by Spurs. We shall never know, however, whether Sir Alex over-estimated them.
If United had been able to hold on for one more minute, he would have been vindicated in his tactics. In the event, setting up with a holding team expected to counter-attack at pace didn't work because United's final pass just wasn't good enough.
This was uncharacteristic for United to play so deep. Maybe it was a dress rehearsal for Real Madrid on February 5. In that respect the formation worked.
But it gifted Spurs 61 percent of possession, which is the complete opposite of United's matches so far this season.
The idea was to strangle the Londoners' attempts to control midfield and limit Gareth Bale's room to play.
This is the second time this season that United have failed to beat Spurs. Both times they played too deep. One was a consequence of Paul Scholes sitting too far back. The other was by design. Neither worked.
But the truth is that Tottenham have to be taken seriously over the next few seasons. They may have two challenges to face, however.
In Adebayor's absence, they are light in the striking department once again. Defoe is on the wrong side of 30. They need another striker.
The greater threat is the likely departure of Bale this summer. The consequences will depend on how wisely Daniel Levy spends the money.
And also whether Spurs win a Champions League place.
They are certainly good enough and organised enough to do that, but not to win the EPL title any time soon. The main reason is defence.
They say attack is the best form of defence, but if United had been more clinical in the final third, they could have stolen this match.
The spectacular build-up play for Van Persie's goal showed up the vulnerability of the Spurs defence. That is a problem Villas-Boas must solve for his team to become contenders.
United Can Play a Holding Game
Phil Jones was excellent in central defence against West Ham on Wednesday. Today he was playing as a midfield destroyer.
Based on these two performances, there is no chance whatsoever of him ending up as the next John O'Shea.
Like the great Duncan Edwards, to whom Phil has been compared, he has a range of skills. You wouldn't pick him as a striker or creative midfield player, but he could probably play anywhere in the back six at a push.
He is still only 20. Sir Alex has made clear that United don't want or need to buy a defensive midfield, but there will be occasions when it will be appropriate for someone to play that role.
Ironically, this was not one of them. United should have set up with an attacking formation and gone for Spurs' throats. Instead, by setting up with a holding formation, they invited the opposition to attack them, and that is what they did with greater and greater success.
Real Madrid have much better attacking flair than Spurs. United will have to be far better at counter-attacking on February 5 if they want to take a result back to Old Trafford.
But for 92 minutes, the formation was very effective. Ferdinand, Vidic, Jones and Carrick were immense in the middle of the park. It's just that Evra was weak again, Cleverley had an off-day, and while Kagawa looked back to his best on the ball, he still gets knocked off it.
So United can play a holding game if needed, but on this afternoon's performance, they still wouldn't stop Barcelona.
David De Gea Is World Class But...
Who would be a goalkeeper on a snowy freezing day facing wave after wave of attacks?
Let's be clear here. If United had held out for one more minute, De Gea would have been a hero.
Instead, he accidentally gifted Spurs a goal when his weak punch fell perfectly for Aaron Lennon to flick on to Clint Dempsey, who buried his shot in the 93rd minute.
But what went before was simply outstanding. Apart from saving one on one from Dempsey earlier, De Gea made at least six other world-class or top-class saves.
He has astonishing reflexes. Twice he saved with his legs, including that shot from Dempsey, who was sure he had scored until the leg flicked out. He also reacted in a way that almost no other keeper could to keep out a deflected bullet from Gareth Bale.
Two shots were parried by the post, and De Gea showed he is commanding his box better. It was such a dreadful pity that he couldn't quite make it all the way.
Gary Neville was ballistic afterwards about De Gea's unlucky parry at the end, but the simple truth is that the 10 or more saves beforehand kept United in the game over and over again.
Ferdinand and Vidic Are Still the Best
Jonny Evans may well be the future. He has had his best season to date.
Thanks to his continuing hamstring problem and Vidic's speedy recovery from his knock against Liverpool, the partnership with Rio Ferdinand was restored for only the second time this season.
It was outstandingly effective. Between them, they repelled countless aerial assaults but also made several interceptions and tackles on the ground.
There was never a suggestion of their being found out for pace, largely thanks to the way that Bale and Lennon were handled. On this form, there are going to be many more clean sheets on which to build United's march to the title.
Michael Carrick Can Play Defensive Midfield
Sky Sports made Michael Carrick Man of the Match. Martin Tyler in commentary described his "midfield masterclass."
Left to Patrice Evra, Aaron Lennon would have destroyed United. The only way the Frenchman could stop him was to kick him and trip him until he got booked.
But time and time again, Carrick snuffed out his threat on the left edge of the penalty area or drove him inside on his weaker foot.
That was not all he did. Paired with Phil Jones, they ratcheted to the left or to the right as needed and formed a powerful combination in the centre in front of Ferdinand and Vidic.
For some reason people seem to think that defensive midfields need to make several tackles a match and kick lumps out of the opposition. As Sir Alex has made clear, you can't do that any more. As today showed more than once, you only have to touch a player and he goes down.
But what Carrick does well, apart from his passing is that he reads the game, and, like Rio Ferdinand, Sir Bobby Moore and other great defenders, it's much more about speed of mind than speed of foot.
He ran the midfield against Liverpool for 68 minutes; he calmed the whole team down when he came on as substitute on Wednesday. Today, apart from getting booked, he hardly put a foot wrong and plenty of times put one in the way.
While his teammates misplaced passes all over the field, Carrick was his usual accurate self and was never once dispossessed.
As Jamie Redknapp said in summary afterwards, he didn't deserve to be on the losing side. One after another of the Sky presenters and summarisers described Carrick's best season so far.
At this rate, if United win the title, he, along with Robin van Persie, will be a key reason.
On This Form Aaron Lennon Is a Better Winger Than Antonio Valencia
Aaron Lennon has not always been consistent. He hasn't usually excelled defensively. He has only had one England cap in the last three years.
But he is now one of Spurs' key players as they drive towards a Champions League place.
While United will have expected Bale to be the biggest threat today, the focus on stopping him left plenty of scope for Lennon to thrive on the opposite wing.
Patrice Evra simply couldn't handle him, and as already mentioned, it was left to Michael Carrick to clear up time and again.
Lennon hasn't been great at defending in the past, but he recovered the ball more than once this afternoon.
In summary, he looked far more effective than Antonio Valencia, who was brought on as substitute to engineer a win for United.
Whether it's because he's carrying an injury or the aftermath of a previous one, he isn't taking on defenders the way he used to, and his crosses have become unreliable.
On this form, Lennon is the better winger. Let's hope United can tie up the transfer of Zaha, who can play on either wing and do what Lennon did very effectively today.