Smoke and blank mirrors
After seven games where Manchester United has deceived more than flattered this season there was perhaps no surprise that the Reds came unstuck at Old Trafford on Saturday. After all Tottenham Hotpsur has enjoyed something of a renaissance in the past week, while Sir Alex Ferguson’s men have picked up points and not plaudits in the campaign to date. No surprise either that Ferguson’s side began Saturday’s match in much the same fashion it had spent much of last weekend’s fortuitous victory over Liverpool: disjointed and lacking in urgency.
It is tempting to ponder whether something is not right at the Theatre of Dreams; Sir Alex certainly has much to ponder. Not least his role in failing to provide a midfield platform on which the Reds’ plethora of attacking players can effectively perform, nor addressing the worryingly complacency that has creeped into the Reds’ game.
Instead, the 70-year-old Scot offered an old-time diversionary tactic following United’s first defeat to Spurs at Old Trafford since 1989: blame the officials for the lack of injury time awarded. Was the excuse not quite so risible, supporters might find humour in Ferguson’s classic smokescreen.
Yet, it took barely two minutes for Ferguson’s bizarre midfield plan, such as it was, to come unstuck against Andre Villas-Boas’ side on Saturday, with Jan Vertongen waltzing through United’s defence to score at the Stretford End.
By the time Clint Dempsey prodded home Tottenham’s third early into the second period the game was very much afoot, despite a valiant attacking effort by the hosts in the final half-hour.
Shinji Kagawa scored a fine goal in the moments following Dempsey’s strike – and United struck both bar and post in a breathless final third – but the real damage had already been inflicted. Much of it self-flagellatory.
It was certainly not the first time this season that United’s open formation, in which the Reds’ midfield offers minimal defensive cover, has contributed to a costly performance. Nor, one suspects, will Saturday’s misshapen defensive unit be the last seen in the campaign ahead.
Yet, for all of Ferguson’s many gifts self-scrutiny is seldom one of them. In 25 years at Old Trafford’s helm the 70-year-old has rarely, if ever, admitted an error in judgement. Saturday tea-time, Ferguson’s decision to select Ryan Giggs and Nani – two of the squad’s least productive players at Anfield – wide of ball-playing Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick, looked every inch a glaring error come the game’s end.
No surprise, then, that Ferguson railed not at self-inflicted wounds, but the officials who “insulted” the game by providing ‘just’ four minute’s of injury time at the end of a pulsating match.
“They gave us four minutes, that’s an insult to the game,” claimed Ferguson after United’s first home defeat of the season.
“It denies you a proper chance to win a football match. There were six substitutions, the trainer came on, so that’s four minutes right away and the goalkeeper must have wasted about two or three minutes and they took their time at every goal kick.
“That’s obvious to everyone today and it’s a flaw in the game that the referee is responsible for time keeping. It’s ridiculous that it’s 2012 and the referee still has control of that.”
In that Ferguson’s argument has some technical merit, although William Gallas and Steven Caulker defended with such determination that there is no guarantee that 40 and not four minutes of added time would have brought United an equaliser.
Indeed, for all United’s possession – 75 per cent on average and rising fast by the game’s conclusion – it was Spurs that offered the greatest cutting edge. At least on the break.
While Vertongen drifted into United’s box without challenge for the visitor’s first, the second was a lesson in incisive attacking play. Moussa Dembélé’s pass cut through the Reds’ midfield, and Gareth Bale’s pace swept the Welshman past Rio Ferdinand, before the winger proffered an expert right-footed finish.
“The most important thing was the first half,” Ferguson admitted.
“We didn’t start, we were lackadaisical and lost a goal after two minutes, and you give yourself an uphill fight with that situation. In the second half we were terrific, it was a great performance by them, and we were unlucky not to win it. If we had held the scoreline at 2-1 for a few minutes I think we would have won the match.”
By the end Ferguson had thrown on four strikers as United chased an equaliser. Wayne Rooney’s introduction for the highly ineffective Giggs at half-time changed the balance of United’s attacking play, if not the fundamental shape.
With Kagawa now operating from a narrow left-sided position, Rooney was at his creative best 10 yards deeper than Robin van Persie. But it was 36-year-old Paul Scholes that caught the eye, commanding United’s tempo and pattern of play as Tottenham regressed into defensive entrenchment following Kagawa’s 52nd minute goal.
There were a more than a few United supporters pondering the stark change in the game’s pattern, although this had more to do with Spurs’ changing ambitions than United’s tactics.
Defeat – United’s second of the Premier League season – inevitably brings with it questions, not least the Reds’ inability to retain a clean sheet. More worrying still, this was the third occasion this season in which United has conceded at least twice. This time there were no injury excuses to fall back on, with Ferdinand and Jonny Evans starting for the second week in succession.
Nor too has Ferguson addressed the fundamental, and potentially season-defining hole in a central midfield that is now packed with ball-players, but appears ill-equipped to deal with opponents that attack at pace.
After all, this was a game that United thoroughly dominated except in the most telling aspect. The hosts hogged three times the visitors’ possession, making three-fold more passes, taking 60 per cent more shots, and forcing Tottenham to make almost four times as many clearances.
The key statistic, however, has always been goals. On Saturday, Spurs’ triple was aided on each occasion by United’s lack of defensive nous.
“This is what happens when you only play for 45 minutes,” said Patrice Evra on MUTV with telling introspection.
“The game is 90 minutes long and we deserved to lose because we only played for 45. To concede three goals at Old Trafford is not good enough when you want to win the game.”
Nor, some might add, is failing to address a very long-term weakness.