Theatre of lucid dreams
Manchester United 1 Tottenham Hotspur 2
Fear. It never has much to do with your opponent. It has everything to do with your own self belief. You shouldn't fear the opposition but you should fear defeat. I no longer fear Manchester United. If I'm honest, I'm not sure I've feared any club for a couple of seasons now. Not to suggest I don't ever think we'd get beaten or outclassed. What tends to get to me more is the possibility that we will somehow contrive to give it away and defeat ourselves.
Tottenham are made of much sterner stuff these days regardless of the recent bumpy ride, there's no necessity to hit the brakes. United away is not the scripted capitulation of the past. It's whatever we wish to make it. The pen is finally in our hands so we can write ourselves a different ending.
I'm positively beaming we've decided to instead use it to stab our seasonal tormentors repeatedly in the face.
This was meant to be Tim Sherwood's first real test. It was in some ways but on reflection, David Moyes side disappointed. His real test will come when we play City at the Lane and the other test is how we react to a loss (hopefully not as part of the City test).
At Old Trafford, the hosts started well. They pressed high and attacked with zest. Spurs on the other hand treated us to one of those ominous slow and sloppy starts. The first touch of several players lacked finesse. In fact, it lacked the £50k + touch of a millionaire footballer.
Yet still in amongst all the untidy Lilywhite play, United didn't really excel. Our left side the main weakness, but much like Luke Skywalker's initial attempts to blow up the Death Star, there was no potency. There was also no ghost Obi Wan Kenobi to whisper encouragement into Adnan Januzaj's ears. Alex Ferguson very much alive, watching from the stands. The facere was with Spurs, the farce with United.
Spurs gradually came into the game, weathering the storm. Well, I say storm I mean light drizzle.
Regarding that left side, Eriksen cut in to craft in the hole behind the two forwards meaning Rose had plentiful work to take on defending leaving the fragile kid exhausted early in the game.
Capoue, Dembele and Lennon made up the midfield with Adebayor and Soldado leading the frontline. Some continuity from Tim with the system that looks like a 442 but as discussed in previous match reports, it isn't how we line up, it's how we move and how we attack. So much more cohesiveness on both accounts more or less proving that regardless of our missing fraternity of brothers, sidelined through injury, we have enough depth to resemble a team that has more than just intent. Like actual bona fide end product.
What followed was not exactly without imperfections, but you'd hardly wish to complain after the final whistle was blown.
Spurs played with comfort as passing found a far sharper level (compared to the early minutes of the game). Soldado with a wonderful visionary pass into Lennon who should have scored but instead allowed De Gea to block at the near post.
United retained the bigger share of possession, tactically astute by targeting Dembele and cutting off the time and space he would require to take a stranglehold in the middle. He simply wasn't available to take a pass in the opening exchanges. Capoue enjoying more of the midfield tussle with plenty of hustle.
Not too worry. Rather than over complicate things, we played simple football, from the back, working the ball forward. Eriksen, in his own time, crossing superbly for Adebayor to gently header the ball past De Gea. A lovely goal for the 1-0. Against the run of play? Fair enough, if you want to describe it like that. I much prefer to see it as Spurs having far more assured quality to poke or nod the ball in. You feel that when a move is started that it's in the minds of the players to end it with a goal celebration.
Soldado could have made it 2-0. Christ, I wish he did. For his own peace of mind. He's still getting into golden positions but he's still striking the ball wide. Although this time, he was perhaps too early with the lunge, with the ball hitting him half way up his leg (rather than the studs on his boots). Still, he's been outstanding in terms of link up play and assisting in recent games. Just that matter of goals considering that's why we signed him. It's one of those rough patches when almost everything is right except that bit you're meant to be an expert in. Say it every week, it will come. Crystal Palace at home soon. I've jinxed it haven't I?
Half time arrived. United not really responding with urgency going a goal down in the same manner in which we responded with control to our poor start.
So far so good. The second half gave us more of the traditional seasoned dramatics but not quite delivered in the same way.
Welbeck diving, Webb not giving. Moyes making substitutions to influence the game. Sherwood responding with Bentaleb for Capoue. One of those decisions that doesn't make sense but might speak more about Tim's persistent faith in bringing on the youngster who has handled himself very well so far. Capoue was playing very well and in some ways the midfield was lost after he went off, although Nabil slowly found his footing in the game.
Chess moves made, Spurs scored again on the counter, this time Eriksen getting his head on the end of a deflected Lennon cross after an excellent pace driven move.
Job done. Job not done.
This is when the imperfection kicked in.
We conceded immediately and United were back in it. It almost felt like a gift, an invitation for them to believe again.
Then what followed is a frantic finish which pays homage to the past. But much like a tribute band, it didn't quite match up to the real thing. Spurs didn't capitulate. To add insult to injury (to the OT faithful) there's another penalty incident (Lloris on Young) and Webb looks away. He even lets a Danny Rose block on Januzaj go, waving the shouts for a free kick away. Perhaps the cybertronic implant in Webb's brain has malfunctioned or Moyes hasn't replaced the batteries in the remote control past onto him by Fergie.
To be honest, I was far more philosophical at this juncture, attempting to contemplate how a team can go 2-0 up with the opposing side quiet and ineffectual to then scoring a goal that elevates all to wake up and birth a more urgent tempo. Tactics hardly relevant. Is football simply a big ball of psychology?
Adebayor was stretched off (severe cramp) just after the United goal, so you could almost feel that ominous cloud of despair returning. It didn't.
Kane came on for Soldado (presumably to hold onto the ball up top) although his defining moment was to boot the ball into touch late on in a comical moment of time wasting followed by an apologetic spit that landed on him.
Lennon went on another mazy run with his shot straight at the keeper.
That aforementioned Lloris penalty incident with Young which would have had Fergie's head explode had he been on the touchline.
There was maddening defending with Hugo having to save a couple of times with pinball pressure in the box as United pressed for an equaliser.
Hugo again involved with sweeping up, this time with his head.
The last five minutes seemed to last an eternity.
Then it finished.
"We could do better", Tim said post-match. We could, for sure. Holding onto the ball and bossing the midfield will be key when we play teams that might consider themselves title challengers. We can also hardly afford to allow so much space down any given flank. United not equipped to truly hurt us. Others might.
So kudos to Sherwood and the instilled belief. The continued evidence of structure and execution of formation and tactics. No high line, the determined Dawson and cultured Chiriches working very well together at the back - Dawson with some vital touches and Vlad masterful. Rose not so comfortable in comparison to Walker on the opposite wing but did well considering Utd didn't take advantage of all that space made available.
Lennon was brilliant, impossible to handle when he's on this type of form. So full of energy and pace, buzzing around, getting in behind defenders. His movement at times superb, making himself available for the ball. It's worth noting how busy our players look with and without possession.
Adebayor and Soldado with equally impressive movement, supporting each other as the partnership continues to grow.
Dembele, Capoue and Bentaleb all putting in a shift although to bring up the question of tests again, we need to see how we shape up against a midfield where coming off as second best will provide more punishment than United were able to muster up.
Eriksen is beginning to find his groove.
Lloris, still making vital stops and saves. You'll find yourself remembering the heart in mouth moments more. A question of trust? Having to regain it after more or less taking responsibility for marshalling the penalty area in our high line era. The remnants still lingering and clouding his judgement.
In the end, Spurs were simply better than United. When it mattered, we pulled the moves together and we created the more telling moments in front of goal.
Things are looking up. We're looking up. If Adebayor continues to play with the intensity he's displayed and if Soldado finds his touch in front of goal and add in few other ifs with returning players (Sandro, Paulinho, Vertonghen - all key to cementing balance) and Spurs under Sherwood have a solid platform to build on.
We are but a handful of points away from the top four.
Everything to play for. But then, isn't that always the case?
No fear. Push on.