In loss to Spurs, United find a place to rebuild

Posted by Musa Okwonga

Where to start? Where to finish? This game was a glorious chaos, all the more enthralling for the calm with which it began.

Tottenham Hotspur had not enjoyed a triumph at Old Trafford for 23 years, and Manchester United had lost only 10 times at home in nine previous Premier League seasons. The authority with which Spurs commanded the first 45 minutes therefore came as something of a shock. They advanced to the break leading by two goals to nil.

Though Gareth Bale had provided one and assisted the other, the star of the half was Jan Vertonghen, the summer signing from Ajax. The Belgian appeared in no less than four positions for the Londoners: he opened the scoring for them after two minutes, with a marauding run along the left flank after a one-two with Bale, then later alternated between left-back and centre-back to repel the few attacks that the home side mustered in his direction.

Though Spurs's sense of enterprise was impressive, Manchester United did not help themselves. They began the game in a 4-2-3-1 formation, mirroring the structure of the Spurs team, but there was an alarming apathy to their play down the left side. Up against the fearsome overlapping proposition of Aaron Lennon and Kyle Walker, Patrice Evra and Ryan Giggs did not exchange a single pass within 45 minutes. Perhaps most galling was the sight of Sandro, a player noted for his tactical conservatism, twice surging so far forward on the right wing that he was almost at the corner-flag.

This should not detract, however, from Spurs' superb opening 45 minutes, which was as well-coached a first half as I have seen by a visiting manager at Old Trafford. Bale, knowing that he was regarded as his team's key attacking threat, artfully withdrew to the wings to make room for onrushing attackers – as was the case with the first goal – or cut in clever diagonal runs across the face of the United area, a move which brought him a majestic strike after catching Rio Ferdinand cold in a forty-yard dash.

Ironically, Bale's goal was wholly reminiscent of a goal Ryan Giggs had scored against away at Juventus in a 3-0 win almost a decade ago, when his fellow Welshman had dragged a desperate defence from left to right before driving the ball with his weaker foot into the bottom right-hand corner. It is doubtful that Giggs, off the pace throughout this match, would be grateful for this reminder.

This afternoon Ferguson was not one for sentiment, and introduced an immediate change at half-time, bringing Wayne Rooney into the fray as a replacement for Giggs. And here is where the game unaccountably shifted into an astonishing tempo, which the home side sustained up until the final whistle.

It is perhaps harsh to call it chaos – the constant promptings of United's front six had more than a little design to them – but from Spurs' perspective, those 45 minutes were an agonising bedlam. Rooney had been impressive in midweek in his return against Newcastle in the Capital One Cup, but there his positioning had been deep-lying, his passing contemplative. Here his play was of a different nature: just behind van Persie, he darted across Manchester United's supporting attack, and within his first five minutes of the field found himself left, right and centre. From the right, he centred for the previously ineffectual Nani, and with some forty minutes remaining a comeback was very much a possibility.

Spurs were resistant to this narrative, and responded almost immediately with a goal on the counterattack, a swift exchange down the left between Defoe and Bale resulting in a fierce shot from the latter which Lindegaard parried into the path of a gleeful Dempsey.

However, they were soon sharply reminded that wins at Old Trafford are not handed out like mince pies at Christmas. Kagawa, fed a smart pass by van Persie in the inside-left channel, rolled a ball across and beyond Friedel into the far corner, and Spurs, by now hypnotised by the frenetic speed and high precision of Manchester United's passing, did little more than hold on till this storm abated.

A few minutes later Rooney saw a free-kick rebound off the outside of the left-hand upright, and then – in what emerged as the game's crucial moment – van Persie, slipped through on the left after 69 minutes, drove a shot wide of the far post, failing even to pick out Rooney as he swooped in towards the six-yard box. Evra would later go close with a header that was swatted away by Friedel, but the feeling was that if that if the Dutchman had scored then, Manchester United would have gone on to win the match. As it was, Spurs managed, rather in the manner of a plucky but overmatched prizefighter, to hang in there until the final whistle.

There is a handful of passing statistics that drives home Manchester United's dominance in the second half. After the first 21 minutes of the second half, they had enjoyed 76% of the game's possession; by the end of the game, Paul Scholes had completed an astounding 135 of 148 passes, a completion rate of some 91%. This number and accuracy compared favourably with Xavi's performance for Barcelona against Chelsea in the second leg of last season's UEFA Champions League (161 out of 169, at 95%), and Andrea Pirlo's masterclass against England at Euro 2012 (115 out of 131, at 88%).

The good news for Manchester United, then, is that they can still overwhelm teams when the mood takes them. That will be a very cold comfort to them as they review a league season in which they have so far been outplayed in the bulk of their games. But, judging by the fearsome attacking triangle that Rooney, Kagawa and van Persie formed tonight, it is a positive place from which to rebuild.

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