1989. This is the last time Tottenham Hotspur defeated Manchester United at Old Trafford. Would Saturday evening turn out differently? Could Andre Villas Boas produce something to end that record?
Prior to the match there was much talk regarding a training ground incident involving Nani, and the subsequent speculation about whether or not he will be forced out of Old Trafford. That said, whatever one may have believed regarding certain stories, the Portuguese winger found himself in the starting line up, on the right, in place of Valencia who sustained an injury. He lined up alongside Giggs, Carrick, Scholes and Kagawa in midfield, with Robin Van Persie the lone man up front. At the back, Lindegaard took place back in goal, with Jonny Evans and Rio Ferdinand in front of him. Patrice Evra and Rafael Da Silva were at left and right back respectively.
Kick off and within 2 minutes, Tottenham were up and running, making their bright start pay off as Vertonghen charged into the box on the left taking a shot that took a fortunate deflection and left the goalkeeper with little chance at saving it. 0-1 in no time at all. THe visitors continued to trouble the defence from there, taking on an offensive mindset and getting the ball forward effectively. United on the other hand, struggled to get going and appeared almost struck by what had occurred in the opening minutes. Indeed, by the half hour mark, Spurs doubled their lead through Gareth Bale, a strong showing in counter-attacking football, as he burst for goal after receiving the ball near the half-way line, getting by Ferdinand with consummate ease before firing home, to make it 0-2. It summed up a half that had been extremely poor from the home side, creating little in the way of chances against a Spurs side that had come into the game extremely positively. There had been arguments for a penalty close to half time, as Nani was pulled back by Vertonghen, but the appeals were waved away, and the half time whistle sounded, with the game at 0-2 and boos heard as the home side trudged off.
The second half signalled the arrival of Rooney, replacing Giggs, and the infamous “Fergie hairdryer” appeared to have been in effect, with Sir Alex’s slumbering stars woken and going on the attack, and getting a goal back within 5 minutes. Rooney, Rafael and Van Persie all linked, to play a ball to Nani who finished nicely to bring the deficit back to the solitary goal. However, before United had finished enjoying the fact they were back in the game, the visitors brought their lead back to 2 goals through Clint Dempsey, capitalising on Bale’s parried shot and bring the score to 1-3.
It took 2 minutes for United to respond though, as Shinji Kagawa, received Van Persie’s through ball, to finish coolly and take the game to 2-3. End to end football and an electric atmosphere inside Old Trafford. From there United camped inside the visitor’s half looking for a way to draw level. There were many chances as United found themselves in complete control of possession and Spurs aiming to get organised as they set up to defend their lead. Wayne Rooney was involved in much of the play, and came close when he hit the bar with a well struck free kick. Arguably, the best chance of the second half fell to Van Persie, as he was played through at an angle and in on goal had the choice to finish or play it across to Rooney to slot home. The resulting effort appeared to be a hybrid of the two, with a shot that was not on target nor anywhere near the target man, to go out for a goal kick.
There were more calls for penalties, with some argument regarding a handball, but Chris Foy was not to be swayed by the calls. Welbeck and, very late on, Hernandez were introduced to attempt to steal a point, but it was not to be, as Spurs valiantly held on to record a 2-3 victory at Old Trafford.
With that, here are five things that may be taken from the game.
1) An awful first half, a dominant second. What changed?
Most fans probably agree that their side were very poor coming up against a Tottenham side that were looking to play positively and get the ball forward. Bale and Vertonghen caused problems and Dembele had plenty of control in the centre of the park and as a result they were fully deserving of the 0-2 lead that they took into the second half. In fact, one could argue that they may well have extended that lead further. Apart from the penalty call, United showed little sign that they would be in the game at any point.
With the start of the second half and Rooney replacing Giggs, suddenly fans were watching a different side, showing far more energy, passing the ball well and getting forward with a much greater threat on goal. It was a strong effort to get back into the game, with defensive weaknesses letting the side down as Spurs got a third, but overall it was the kind of response expected from Sir Alex’s side. One always has the feeling that United are not quite beaten over the course of a match, but ultimately they left themselves too much to do as the game wore on and Tottenham defended well.
The question is: why did they not start that way? After the first goal at the start of the game, the side should have sparked back into life, instead Tottenham were able to run riot. Collectively the side performed poorly, with the midfield and defence finding themselves outmatched. For all their efforts in the second half, Tottenham were more deserving of victory in the end, for the way they went about the game in the first half, and their defensive efforts in the second.
2) Giggs, Carrick and Scholes should not be starting together
One cannot deny the class of all three midfielders mentioned above. However, one cannot expect all of them to play together, especially without a player who can break up play and win the ball to help them control the midfield more. In truth, United miss the kind of player that Darren Fletcher has been for them before his illness, someone to grind and work for the ball and free up players like Scholes to play the ball forward and pass with more freedom. Scholes, in particular, was extremely good on Saturday evening, passing the ball very effectively, but that really came to the fore in a second half when United were pushing for goals anyway.
One cannot help but feel some concern, when the two main midfielders in the side are in their late thirties in the twilight of their careers. For all their quality, it is too much to expect them to start week in week out. I feel that Giggs in particular should be coming from the bench more often, rather than starting these days.
3) Would Anderson or Cleverley, or both have made a difference?
As mentioned in the previous point, I believe United suffered in midfield due to the fact they missed a player of a certain type that would help them gain more control. With that in mind one wonders whether Anderson and Cleverley would have helped given the way Spurs played in the first half. Certainly, there is more argument for at least one of them starting instead, injecting more energy into the game, perhaps Cleverley more than Anderson, who appeared short of fitness towards the end of the game against Newcastle.
4) Rooney was missed
After the game against Newcastle, one could not help but note that Rooney appeared leaner and fitter than he had done before his injury, and indeed in that game he was very effective, involved in much of the attacking threat and instrumental in their progression to the next round. His introduction against Tottenham had similar effect, with the England striker proving influential in the attempt at a fightback. His appearance provided more energy to the team, and found himself involved in United’s first goal in the second half. He could have had a goal himself, but his effort struck the wrong side of the woodwork from a well taken free kick.
I mentioned before that with a plethora of attacking options, Rooney being out injured was no longer such an issue, and to an extent that is true, but at the same time one must acknowledge the effect that he can have when he is on form and in the mood.
5) Defensive issues and refereeing decisions
Saturday evening proved to be one of those occasions where the referee was not to be swayed by the penalty calls the side were making. Most will agree, that United were deserving of at least one spot kick during the game, the challenge on Nani in the box at the end of the first half being the most obvious, but ultimately as with every game, sometimes the decisions go one way, sometimes they are not what one would expect. There will always be good decisions and bad ones, but on this occasion it does not cover as an excuse for what was a poor showing early on. The lack of a penalty was not United’s undoing on Saturday, the team as a whole were.
Indeed, Tottenham fans may argue that it is time they had some luck given the history of strange decisions against them at Old Trafford in recent years, the most infamous of which being “the goal that was not” when Roy Carroll was between the posts, beaten by a long range effort.
The final point to be made is the defensive lapses that occurred. Rio Ferdinand in particular, should probably accept responsibility, despite looking solid up until Bale’s goal. Even when controlling the second half, there were one or two nervous moments as Tottenham had a short moment to break, demonstrated by their third goal, so quickly taken after United had managed to pull a goal back.
Perhaps one must question the manager for the decisions made in regards to selection and what is produced on the pitch. Certainly, Sir Alex will be making sure his players are made to correct their errors in training, but there are question marks among fans with regards to why certain players are picked and what is seen by some as a failure to address the midfield issue. Of course this should not be taken as some sort of claim that he should quit soon, but it is always healthy to question certain decisions with other arguments and opinions.
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