Manchester United escaped North London with a point on Sunday, but Tottenham fans will be asking how their side failed to take all three.
Tottenham's performance was largely dominant after a scrappy opening 20 minutes, and the viewing confirmed what many of us have suspected for a while—Spurs are serious contenders.
If there was one player on the pitch you'd have expected more from, it was Gareth Bale. Why? He failed to have a telling impact—if any impact—on a game in which Spurs were probably good for a few goals.
The expectations have risen for the Welshman, but Sir Alex Ferguson came up with an ingenious way to stop the wing wizard from tormenting his side.
On paper, it looked like Bale was set to romp his flank, considering Rafael's suspect defensive capabilities and commitment. The Brazilian is improving every game, but he's not ready to take on someone of Bale's calibre.
Sir Alex Ferguson saw it the same way, drawing up a loose midfield diamond formation with an extra defensive focus on the right-hand side.
It looked a little something like this:
Danny Welbeck started on the right and Tom Cleverley on the left, but after around 25 minutes, both players switched sides. That said, the free-flowing movement among the United ranks made it difficult to pin down the genuine position of any players other than Michael Carrick.
The area highlighted is what we're focusing on here—the use of three players in the nullification of Bale.
Rafael stayed nice and tight to the Welshman all game long and actually sacrificed some of his attacking intent to keep him in check. Without the guarantee of the Brazilian being goal-side all game long, however, Fergie deployed Phil Jones as a defensive-minded midfield shuttler.
He ventured forward on occasion, but stayed largely proximate to Carrick in his duties to make sure United had a man goal-side of Bale at all times.
When he did receive the ball on the left flank, he was boxed in.
Kyle Naughton saw this and looked for an opportunity to slot Bale in over the top of Rafael, but Rio Ferdinand spent the majority of the first half sliding across to the right touchline, instantly nullifying the threat of Naughton's intent. The ball wasn't on.
For the most part, Ferdinand stopped Bale breaking down the flank just by taking a few steps to the right—he didn't even have to be near the ball. Excellent defending.
After 25 minutes, Bale got fed up and roamed inward.
It has to be said, he wasn't largely effective in-field, either. Tottenham fans booed the use of their star winger centrally, and once he'd escaped the clutches of Ferdinand, Jones and Rafael, he ran into Carrick instead.
The only way Andre Villas-Boas was able to get Bale into the game was by upping the tempo significantly. Much like United sliced through Spurs for their opener thanks to the brilliance of Shinji Kagawa, Bale got one opportunity when he was on the ball after just two or three quick touches.
Unfortunately, with United dropping deeper and deeper, space to play was at a premium, and Aaron Lennon fared much better with a one vs. one battle with Patrice Evra on the opposite flank.