Manchester United 2 Tottenham Hotspur 3
Someone, please hold me.
I swear, hand on heart, before the game kicked off, in the build up to it I was not in the slightest bit nervous. I guess because it’s Old Trafford and the memories of the past twenty-three years have turned the occasion into a foregone conclusion. We know the script, we’ve read through it dozens of times before. It's a seasonal tradition. At full time I was a complete mess of a man. Why? Because of that oh so common anomaly that can sometimes crop up when we play them. On those rare occasions, perhaps two or three times in amongst the twenty-six games without a win in their back yard, there is sometimes an inclining of hope. That moment when you almost believe because you think the players believe.
On those rare occasions we’ve had that cruelly and sometimes brutally and many times comically snatched away from us, without remorse. It’s in these moments of hope where you suddenly care so much more. Not that you never care about what transpires for Spurs but you care more so because the very thought of losing is soul destroying because you believe you've got a grasp on victory. Hope is the unequivocal reason. Hope, hope takes you, grabs you by the throat and drags you to the very brink of hell, pulling you down, making you experience all you witness in slow motion. You suffer every second, it becomes unbearable. This is what it feels like to be a supporter of any club. For us it’s pretty much the standard.
We have had to endure being out classed, losing to dubious referring decisions and a variety of capitulations that were birthed from the fact that for all the desire to believe, there was nothing to truly back it up when it mattered most. Why was that? Probably because we allowed that negativity to become synonymous with playing them. 'United, they’re bound to beat us', and they do, every time. Thinking it is enough to constitute believing it. A single shred of doubt is enough. In my match preview I said that for all the years and games played, in many ways, none of it should be of any relevance to the present day and the game to be played next. Why should it be? Fact is, bad luck and decisions aside, we have never been good enough to beat United at Old Trafford. Tactically and mentally. On this occasion we got it right and to make certain of the three points, a footballing God up in the heavens decided that there would be no thunderous rain to drown us in. They looked away for once.
This is a new Tottenham Hotspur, in its infancy in terms of maturity of system and tactics but eager, hungry and willing to impress. It’s still early days. There’s still plenty to improve on, but you can take a performance and a result like this and you use it as evidence of squad harmony. It feeds into boosting morale, confidence. Also, it adds to the justification of the faith placed in the coach and in being patient. The great fallacy about football is that if one person says something another believes this to be true simply because it’s been said. One person says 'pressure' therefore another believes there must be pressure. What pressure? Who cares? The word is sometimes nothing more than a commercial commodity to make money from the hyperbole it generates. Villas-Boas isn't under pressure, he's just probably irritated. His emotional celebrations are a release. No doubt the frustrations and experience at Chelsea still need to be worked out of his system along with one or two other bug bites that need to be scratched.
The game itself was fascinating because it illustrated just how juxtaposed when comparing one half to the next.
The first half was exceptional. 1-0 up in no time at all. Half man half amazing Jan Vertonghen bursting into the box to score. It was easy, too easy. Too earlier? Was hope planning to drag me down kicking and screaming within the opening couple of minutes? We continued in good form. Bossing the game. More pace, more power and some beastly performances in midfield and on the break. Sandro starting a move with a brilliant tackle on van Persie, playing the ball out to Dembele who released Bale for the second. 2-0 at the break. The most telling aspect of our play was the intensity of our movement, always looking to hurt United. Composed and effective passing. Confidence in abundance. Which is where that ominous whisper makes its appearance, that voice in your head, pulling you back from being overcome with excitement and bravado. Hope.
“We’ve been here before”, it whispers, "...You know what happens next, don't you?"
Would have been naive to expect United to come out second half and not attempt to claim some type of stranglehold on the game. We were deeper, sitting back too much and not defending the flanks but then we never got hold of the ball enough to dictate tempo. One stat I saw shared on Twitter was that we only completed around 35 passes in the second half, such was United’s dominant pursuit with making a breakthrough. You expect them to make that breakthrough too. Regardless of our past history with them, it’s United, they’re famous for it. It’s what they do.
From being in control with splendid work ethic and intelligent movement in the first half, we chased down shadows and surrendered that intensity to the hosts in the second. We got teased and slapped around by hope once more, as she loves to do. That anomaly, that rarity. Once more into the heart of darkness we stared.
Perhaps there is a solution to being pegged back like that. Something VB noted for future reference. The ball, when sent forward, was instantly lost and United pressed on over and over again. We failed to take the sting out the game, we failed to slow it down. This resulted in a variety of emotions and cursing and praying. But we did not collapse or give in or lose focus and concentration. Yes, the wood work saved us a couple of times. Yes, there was a decision in there that might have, could have gone United’s way. Yes, they missed a couple of chances that they could so easily have buried. But these are the very same incidents that all clubs suffer but sometimes succeed with, week in week out. Just because we’re the benefactors of luck this time, doesn’t demean it. Justice for Pedro, right?
That second half was more to do with Manchester United waking up than it was to do with our tactics. Much like United's first half performance was influenced by our dominance. Tactics aside, the players had to dig deeper than ever to find that resolve and that belief, which is usually nothing more than an empty shell at Old Trafford but this time was fleshed out the size of Godzilla fighting off an army of attacks.
At 2-0, after the second forty-five kicked off, I made a dash to the toilet. Butterflies in my gut had morphed into piranhas. I returned and stared with sheer amazement that the score was now 3-1. I had time to blink and it was then 3-2. No no no, not this I cried out. The game, in the space of 140 seconds had gone clinically mental. For all of that structure of the first forty-five, the game had opened up massively. As games do. Tactically, the game had relaxed. Loosened up. You can argue the way things panned out initially is how we had planned. We set out to attack and pressure and hassle United and it worked. The second half was probably going to be the same from us but perhaps with looking to turn defence into attack, on the counter. Yet it become a game where United were always in the ascendancy and we became reactive to everything they threw at us. We lost the remote behind the sofa and had to endure forty-five minutes of a tv show we didn't want to watch. Aside from luck, it’s here that mental strength can come in quite handy.
Tottenham believed. And for once it was not false or deluded or misplaced. For once it wasn't an empty shell.
For all those years, I’ll be damned if I wasn’t ecstatic about this. United might not be the team of previous seasons but this is more about the team we can become rather than the state of the teams we play. They still have the experience. We still have to earn it. This win goes some way to setting the foundations for future victories.
Friedel – Did his job. Held onto the ball when it was imperative to do so. Safe hands.
Walker – He still hasn’t got a grip on positioning which means we’ll be punished for it, inviting pressure on. More discipline required.
Gallas – Experienced. Proving a fair few wrong. Looked suspect earlier this season, almost felt last year was his last run out and yet he’s managed to retain some influence and composure at the back for us. With no Ledley there, it’s perhaps fortunate we kept Gallas.
Caulker – Didn’t panic, but he’s hardly a Premier League fledgling. Gallas by his side helps.
Vertonghen – Did I see a Superman celebration? Keep this form up and he’ll easily be our Player of the Season. Brilliant in defending as he is bringing the ball out. Risky with the shirt pull, but his run in the early minutes was deserving of the goal he got. Not too shabby at left-back.
Sandro – This might well be the season we see him mature. Beastly as ever, and much like Bruce Banner, in control of the monster within. A vital element to the way the side sets up. Holding midfield, defensive midfielder, brick wall. Call his role what you want, he doesn’t just defend. By virtue of winning the ball he can spark an attack with a simple ball. That tackle on Robin van Persie.
Dembele – Another powerful performance but struggled a little with his passing in the second half.
Dempsey – Scored. Still finding his groove, still has to work on his awareness and movement with new team mates. He'll score a few by attacking the penalty area.
Bale – Much more like it. Scores and assists.
Lennon – I’d like to see Villas-Boas to work on how he can use his runs more effectively. Honestly, at full pelt, running at defences, he can be unplayable. Doesn’t happen enough, but he’s started this season in superb form. 14 key passes so far this season.
Defoe – Worked hard. Will always struggle a little with holding up the ball when were up against it (something we desperately needed in the second half) but can’t fault his performance and link up play when we attacked. Was involved in two goals. He’s a much better footballer under VB. His run left Ferdinand and Evans in no mans land for Bale's goal and he held the ball up wonderfully well in the build up to Dempsey's.
Sig, Huddlestone and Dawson – all helped out when coming on. It was hardly the easiest of games at the time of arrival. Chris Hoy will be able to tweet without any repercussions concerning mistaken identity. Sir Alex will still be complaining, as officially 'Fergie Time' isn't due to finish until Monday morning.
As for our coach? Top marks. Let the haters keep on hating, let there be a siege mentality if necessary, but everything outside of Tottenham that only exists to criticise is hardly of any true relevance any more. Most of it is borderline fantasy mixed with unintentional parody. Such is the lack of substance. Club in crisis. Villas-Boas wins the three games he had to win to save his job < insert canned laughter here >.
We won the game because of the first half. United were only as good as they were in the second because of the performance we put in. The spirit and survival instincts displayed our character isn’t one dimensional like past teams that flattered to deceive. We can be bullish and we can be bullied, but we can still come out on top. It’s just one game, but its testament to the work being done at Spurs. A fantastic result for a club in turmoil, where players hate training and dislike their coach by refusing to play for him and then mockingly hug him after the final whistle.
The game left me both physically and mentally exhausted by the end of it. But utterly joyful at the same time. Only our fifth away win in eighty games against the old traditional top four. Another hoodoo gone. But more importantly, twenty-three years aside, justification in support of our coach.
So onwards to the next test and the next step. Where no doubt hope awaits once more to suffocate our beating hearts.