These are the moments when Manchester United must realise their grip on the Premier League title is slowly being released, finger by finger. They subjected Tottenham to some intense pressure in the final exchanges but the time has passed since Sir Alex Ferguson used to boast that no other side in the world scored more late goals and ultimately they were left to stew on their fourth league defeat at Old Trafford this season. Three have come within the last four weeks and teams with genuine title aspirations surely cannot be so careless.
The champions are now seventh, 11 points off the lead, and David Moyes must feel as if he has been offered the keys to a millionaire's pad, only to discover nobody had told him it had rising damp. United at least showed great spirit in that dramatic final push for an equaliser but they really had no choice but to throw everything into attack after going 2-0 behind midway through the second half. They have already lost on their own ground to Everton, Newcastle and West Brom and it is clear that opposing teams no longer consider Old Trafford to be the formidable place it once was.
Certainly it is starting to feel like a trick of the imagination that Spurs went 23 years without winning at this ground before André Villas-Boas's team managed it last season. Tim Sherwood has now pulled it off in his fourth league game in charge, taking his points tally to 10 out a possible 12 since taking the job. He has rejuvenated the career of Emmanuel Adebayor, the first Spurs scorer, and could probably be entitled to think his team should have spared themselves the late onslaught once Christian Eriksen made it 2-0 midway through the second half. They played with great togetherness to withstand plenty of early pressure and benefited again from Sherwood's switch to an old-fashioned, yet hugely effective, 4-4-2 system.
Daniel Welbeck scored within a minute of Eriksen and at one point Moyes was three yards on the pitch, howling for a penalty after Hugo Lloris had charged from his goalline and lost a chase of the ball to Ashley Young. United had a legitimate grievance and maybe Young's reputation went against him. Welbeck had already been culpable of what looked suspiciously like a dive and Adnan Januzaj, another repeat offender, was involved in an incident of the same type later on, albeit attracting a robust defence from his manager. United had a slightly dishevelled look, however much Moyes tried to butter up their performance, and nobody should think this was a smash-and-grab win for Spurs.
Aaron Lennon, who seems to reserve his best performances for United, will reflect he should already have scored when clean through on goal from Roberto Soldado's exquisite pass before Adebayor opened the scoring on 34 minutes. Soldado had a wonderful chance to make it 2-0 within five minutes and at one point late in the first half Adebayor could be seen sprinting back to the left-back position tussling with Wayne Rooney for the ball. When the resultant corner came over it was Adebayor with the clearance and, again, when the ball was returned to the penalty area. That little passage of play encapsulated their attitude. Adebayor was taken off on a stretcher in the second half and Sherwood said he was not even sure where the injury was. "He's got ice on everything down there," he said.
Adebayor's goal had its origins in the kind of swift counterattacking football to which United have been vulnerable too often this season. Januzaj's loose pass created the problems for United from an encouraging attacking position of their own. Kyle Walker turned defence into attack with a clever piece of skill and perfectly measured ball to Eriksen and United, with Patrice Evra out of position, were in trouble from that moment. Eriksen exchanged passes with Soldado, darted to the right and the nearest defender, Chris Smalling, barely moved as Adebayor expertly guided the Dane's cross just inside the post. From one end to the other it was a goal of fine quality.
United had begun the game brightly. Januzaj showed early flashes of his talent but their most penetrative attacks in those moments mostly originated on the right. Antonio Valencia was a difficult opponent for Danny Rose and Smalling's overlapping runs from full-back added to the danger.
Yet there were only brief passages when United produced the fluency for which they are known. Rooney's desire to give everything to his team will always be a quality but a striker of his ability should not be trying to run the game from every part of the field. Valencia's early promise tailed off and he was switched to right-back when Moyes tried to shake up his team, at 2-0, by taking off Smalling and Michael Carrick and bringing on two more attack-minded players in Javier Hernández and Shinji Kagawa.
It was a bold move from Moyes but Valencia was at fault for Eriksen's goal, far too slow to react once Lennon had sped to the outside of Nemanja Vidic and clipped the ball across the penalty area. Eriksen showed far more commitment to getting there first, darting in to send a stooping header past David de Gea.
Welbeck's goal was a lovely, dinked finish over Lloris from Januzaj's pass but the Spurs goalkeeper was superb thereafter. Moyes, reflecting on the Young incident as a "scandalous" decision, made no attempt to conceal his frustration.