There were boos from the home fans at White Hart Lane on the hour when the substitute’s board went up and an incredulous Aaron Lennon was hauled off to be replaced by Andros Townsend. It was not the replacement that the home crowd were angry about - more that it was Lennon, excellent in the first half, who was beckoned to the sidelines.
Asked afterwards if he had a problem with the verdict of the crowd, manager Andre Villas-Boas answered simply, “No” and moved on. But if that was truly the case then the home support at White Hart Lane were among the few critics whom Villas-Boas was not getting stuck into by the end of the day.
He attacked Alan Sugar, a recent critic, and referenced two pieces in a newspaper as having an “agenda” against him because they had questioned the “integrity” of his achievements at Porto, which of course landed him his job at Chelsea. This was the 36-year-old manager moving from his usual earnest analysis of the match to a more unfamiliar territory and while it was hard at times to divine the point he was making, there is nothing wrong with standing up for one’s self.
Villas-Boas is learning that English football is not a game that can always be won or lost with hours on the training pitch, or time spent trawling through data and scouting reports. Occasionally a manager needs to impose himself when he feels that the criticism might be overwhelming him. He needs to walk a little taller and talk a little louder. While Villas-Boas is not a natural when it comes to clashing with the press, it was evident that he believes his attitude in that regard has to change.
Most of all, however, he needed his team not to let him down in the way that they did against Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium the previous Sunday, and on that score they came through. Twice Spurs took the lead in a wonderful football match that was in the balance until the very end. Twice United came back through the best player on the pitch, Wayne Rooney, whose second equaliser came from the penalty spot on 55 minutes.
There was just about enough in this Spurs performance to ease the pressure on a young manager who is, naturally, feeling the pressure. A win against free-falling Fulham on Wednesday remains a basic requirement and with that then some breathing space will come before the away trip to Sunderland on Saturday.
What will concern Villas-Boas is that this still does not look like a Spurs team that is about to click, in spite of the the chances they created in the first half. In midfield, Paulinho was pushed up to play a more creative role behind Roberto Soldado, with mixed results. The £26m forward did not like he had found his groove either. The goals came from a Kyle Walker free-kick and a brilliant shot from Sandro - neither are among the players Spurs expect to score their goals.
As Villas-Boas fights his battles, however, it can be easy to forget that life does not seem to get much easier for David Moyes either. After that 5-0 win over Bayer Leverkusen on Wednesday his team were unable to improve on last week’s draw away at Cardiff City. The defending champions are nine points behind leaders Arsenal and their reliance on Rooney in the absence of the injured Robin Van Persie is startling.
Moyes conceded that his midfield had lacked the creativity to carve open Spurs. One has to admire Tom Cleverley’s willingness to take possession, the problem is that once that is the case he often seems to have little idea what to do with it. Too many times at White Hart Lane, with the ball at his feet Cleverley raised his palms, imploring his team mates to indicate where they wanted it. That part is supposed to be his job.
Phil Jones did the hard work alongside him well. In the No 10 role, Shinji Kagawa faded away as he so often does. No wonder Moyes ignored him for so long. Returning from injury, it was expected Danny Welbeck might be at half-pace and he was. Antonio Valencia’s excuse was not so obvious. In the end, it was all about Rooney whose two goals took him above Robbie Fowler to fifth in the all-time Premier League goalscorers’ list.
Spurs took the lead when Jonny Evans’ clumsy foul on Paulinho gave the home side a free-kick on the edge of United’s box on 18 minutes. The wall jumped to block Walker’s shot and the ball went underneath. Around that time Aaron Lennon was having another one of his dominant games against Patrice Evra. Soldado and Paulinho exchanged passes and the former shot over the bar. Lennon forced a crucial save from David De Gea on the left.
It was a bad error that let United back in. Jones won the ball from Mousa Dembele and crossed from the right, the ball clearing Rooney. Unfortunately for Walker, his cushioned lay-off into the path of the United striker could not have been more perfect if he had been asked to do it ten more times. Rooney stuck the ball away and an awkward quiet fell over White Hart Lane.
Eight minutes into the second half, Sandro turned away from Cleverley, switched the ball onto his right foot and hit a shot so true into the top right corner of De Gea’s goal that the United man did not waste his time moving to stop it.
Spurs had barely got used to the idea of regaining the lead when United equalised two minutes later. Welbeck pushed the ball wide of Hugo Lloris and went down over the goalkeeper’s hands. There was contact although that alone did not necessarily require Mike Dean to make the decision. Villas-Boas described the incident as “difficult” but a “decision we have to accept”, which seemed like a fair assessment.
Rooney dispatched the penalty and shortly afterwards came the moment when the Spurs fans protested at Lennon’s substitution. Jermain Defoe, on as a replacement for Soldado, was the pick of the substitutes. It was notable how little effect the three United players that came on - Javier Hernandez, Nani and Ashley Young - had on the game. Neither manager looked happy at the final whistle. Just quietly relieved not to have lost.
Tottenham (4-2-3-1): Lloris 6; Walker 6, Dawson 5, Chiriches 6, Vertonghen 6; Sandro 7, Dembele 6; Lennon 7 (Townsend 6, 60); Paulinho 6, Chadli 5 (Sigurdsson, 86); Soldado 6 (Defoe, 72).
Substitutes not used: Friedel (gk), Kaboul, Holtby, Capoue.
Manchester United (4-2-3-1): De Gea 6; Smalling 6, Evans 6, Vidic 6, Evra 5; Jones 6, Cleverley 6; Valencia 5 (Nani, 83), Kagawa 5 (Young, 83), Welbeck 6 (Hernandez, 73); Rooney 8.
Substitutes not used: Rafael, Anderson, Lindegaard (gk), Fellaini.
Referee: M Dean
Man of the match: Rooney