Seemingly just to prove a point, football proved yesterday that it can be frustrating in a number of creative ways. Last week, humiliation at the hands of our arch-rivals was the order of the day; this time around, the concept of being the better side and yet still ending up on the wrong end of a definitive scoreline was thoroughly explored.
As it turned out, it was just another ‘one of those days’ – you know, the ones we’ve been having for approximately the last eleven years whenever we find ourselves up against the red half of Manchester. That we last emerged victorious against them back in May 2001 perhaps warned against optimism, but the margin of United’s victory was undeserved in terms of the two performances on show.
Still, there was heart to be taken from the response to the Arsenal defeat, even if it was the same old story of defensive errors proving to be our downfall. Lessons were clearly learnt, with Lennon starting and looking lively throughout (even if his inclusion was a consequence of Bale’s absence), and our midfield play in general looking a little more like it’s characteristic self. A mixed bag overall then, with some closer examinations after the jump.
Having said that lessons were learnt, our defence clearly didn’t show for the debriefing after Arsenal debacle. We may have stood toe to toe with United in midfield, with Sandro kicking Scholes around the pitch like a ginger rag-doll, and Livermore making Parker’s absence seem practically unfelt, but defending ability proved the difference between the two sides, the same deficiencies that proved our downfall last week making themselves keenly felt once again.
For the first half, we besieged United, pushing them back against their own penalty area – but their defensive acumen and solidity meant that that was often as far as we managed to penetrate. Attack after attack crashed against an iron wall, with Phil Jones proving the only weak link in the chain – and even then, the collective defensive abilities of this United side meant he was rarely left over-exposed. Sadly, the same could not be said for Tottenham’s back line.
Last week, Benoit Assou-Ekotto had a shocker – this week, it was the turn of Kyle Walker. Guilty of trying to play his way out of trouble too often instead of simply passing the ball, his poor marking of Rooney lead to United’s breakthrough, and his sloppy clearance also played a part in their second shortly after half-time. The frustrating thing about all three goals was that they were preventable – even Ashley Young’s spectacular third might have been averted had he been closed down more quickly instead of being given all the time in the world to compose his finish.
As already noted, there were encouraging signs amongst the defensive circus, most notably from Jake Livermore and Aaron Lennon. Livermore battled solidly in the centre of the park, with the highest passing accuracy (88%) of those who played the full 90 minutes, and if he continues to develop, could eventually prove a natural successor to the ageing Scott Parker. Meanwhile, Lennon made up for not getting on the pitch last weekend by tearing Phil Jones and Patrice Evra a new one for most of the first half, searing down both flanks and showing an impressive willingness to take players on to get into great positions. The positional diagram below shows just how attacking a role Lennon (7) took up – if Bale can be encouraged to abandoned his mostly failed central playmaker experiment, then few could argue that our best team sees him on one wing and Lennon on the other.
Up front, Adebayor was a little more wasteful in possession than he has perhaps been of late, and Louis Saha was in and out of the game. Jermain Defoe did what was required of him after coming on late in the second half, spanking one past De Gea from 25 yards, but sadly at that point it was too little, too late. Defoe must be wondering where it all went wrong – his goalscoring record hasn’t been terrible this season, but he’s fallen foul first of Redknapp’s desire to play a 4-4-1-1 earlier in the season, and now to his preference for Louis Saha up front with Adebayor in a 4-4-2.
The game’s big decision was the striking off of Adebayor’s first half goal for handball – a decision that looked dubious in real time, but in slow motion was vindicated. The twitter conspiracy theorists all crawled out to pour scorn on the decision, citing the handball as being accidental – but regardless of the intention, Adebayor doubtless gained an advantage from his handling of the ball, with the replays showing it heading away from him until meeting with his arm. Whilst blaming the officials is often convenient, this time around it was probably the right decision.
The Business End of the Season
This was a result that firmly decided our position heading into the business end of the season – nervously glancing backward over our shoulders for the remaining eleven games. Arsenal’s one-man Dutch revival continues apace, and what was once a chasmic 11 point gap has now dwindled to a too-close-for-comfort 4 points. As unlikely as it might have seemed a few months ago, it seems that if anybody will overhaul us in third place, it will be Arsenal rather than Chelsea, with Abramovich seemingly sidetracking their campaign and bowing to player pressure with the sacking of AVB.
The good news is that our run-in is by far the most comfortable, with only Chelsea themselves providing a potential stumbling block. All of our other remaining fixtures should be winnable – which isn’t to say we will win them, but that there’ll be less high pressure games for the team to cope with. This can only be counted as a blessing considering our ongoing record against teams in the top four this season, with just three points from a possible eighteen. Third place is still ours to lose, so it’s just a matter of finding out whether the flaky Tottenham has been lurking in the shadows all along, or if this group of players are made of sterner stuff.