Put into perspective, losing to Manchester United does not alter the fact that Tottenham have enjoyed an excellent start to the season. A 100% record after four games was better than anyone could have imagined, matched only by money-bags Chelsea and Manchester City. However, with all due respect to the opposition faced by Spurs before the weekend, United were always going to provide the first real test of how much improvement has taken place at White Hart Lane. Liverpool on the opening day of the season might like to argue otherwise, but the reality is that they were a team out of form after a poor pre-season. Besides, the opening day is more of a dress rehearsal than a marker for what is to come. Even the best teams can appear ring-rusty and underprepared. Having dispatched the Reds, followed by Hull, West Ham and Birmingham, Sir Alex Ferguson’s men represented a higher level of challenge.
History was certainly not on Spurs’ side for the visit of the champions. No league victories in their last 16 meetings and a smattering of cup defeats is not a record that fills a team with confidence, highlighting something that United have always possessed and Spurs have long been lacking – ruthlessness. Harry Redknapp’s side have been much improved in this respect this season, taking their chances against Hull emphatically and working until the death to snatch victory against Birmingham. After less than a minute against the champions on Saturday, man of the moment Jermain Defoe had already taken advantage of a nervous clearing header by one of United’s otherwise faultless centre-backs and history looked like it might finally be rewritten. It was not.
One moment best sums up what is missing from Redknapp’s team before they can consider themselves worthy of a place at the money end of the Premier League. When Paul Scholes was dismissed, the Red Devils were able to make a substitution Spurs can only dream of. Ironically, both players involved were former Tottenham employees, but as is the norm when a top class player performs well at a mid-table team, the big boys had long since moved to snap up Michael Carrick and Dimitar Berbatov. Those two players represent the big difference between United and Spurs on Saturday – creativity. A forward line featuring Robbie Keane, Peter Crouch and Defoe is not to be sniffed at. All have their merits, with the biggest strength of each being their finishing ability. Whilst Berbatov has not hit his best form at United, he still possesses the inventive mind and delicate touch that would make the difference in attack were he still to be in a white shirt. Partnered with Keane, as before, or with the rejuvenated Defoe, Berbatov has the ability to unlock the stubborn United defence in a way Spurs could not manage.
Tellingly, United were able to replace Berbatov with Carrick when reduced to ten men and still go on to score. Having Wayne Rooney up front and in red-hot form is like having two men which allowed United the luxury of bringing on a man of Carrick’s creative ability and defensive resoluteness. That United were able to leave Carrick on the bench in the first place is perhaps the most significant point in analysing the differences between the teams. Tottenham have looked a much better prospect against most Premier League teams since bringing in the combative Wilson Palacios from Wigan and he has started to strike up a decent partnership with the classier Tom Huddlestone. Jermaine Jenas returned from injury as a half-time substitute to give Redknapp a further option in the centre of midfield but his squad does not go much further at the moment. Compared to having the luxury of choosing between Carrick, Darren Fletcher, Anderson, Scholes, Ryan Giggs and the promising Darron Gibson, relying on the limited Palacios and immobile Huddlestone just does not cut it at the very highest level.
One further point of note is the problem caused by Ledley King’s ‘dodgy’ knee. King is an outstanding centre-back on his day and Sebastien Bassong has been an excellent purchase. Yet with King unable to play more than once a week and rarely able to train, there is little chance for the two to build up a genuine understanding. Both have significant individual merits that are able to form a makeshift combination against most strike forces, yet their unfamiliarity was a handicap against Rooney and Berbatov and was ultimately punished. United themselves have fielded several different partnerships so far this season, but at least they can work together in training. Spurs have the quality to beat 75% of Premier League teams comfortably this season, but at this moment they are still a class behind the best.