It was the moment when the substitutes' board went up on 65 minutes and the Tottenham crowd realised André Villas-Boas was bringing off their most dangerous player that the mood briefly threatened to sour. Aaron Lennon had been brilliant in the first half and it was clear from the way the winger flicked his eyebrows to the sky as he made for his seat on the bench that he could not believe the decision either.
The booing from the Tottenham support seemed to betray the edginess that has bubbled at this stadium in recent times and these were 90 minutes of knife-edge tension, during which the under-pressure Villas-Boas went through all manner of touchline agonies. It was not a classic but the day's swirling emotion made up for it. Neither Villas-Boas nor Manchester United's David Moyes dared to lose.
This, however, was better from Villas-Boas and Tottenham, and not only in comparison with last Sunday's wreckage at Manchester City. The challenge for him went beyond the need to respond to the Etihad nightmare. He had to show that his remoulded team could be positive to answer the boardroom concerns that had built since the home defeat to West Ham United in early October about his team's lack of fluency and incision.
In short, Tottenham have not been great to watch since Gareth Bale's departure to Real Madrid and the influx of seven new faces who have laboured, in general, to settle. There is the sense that Villas-Boas is groping rather to find his preferred blend. The fans have felt frustrated. And so has the board.
But against a United team that looked anything but champions-in-waiting, Tottenham could take encouragement, even if they twice threw away the lead when Moyes's men seemed there for the taking. Villas-Boas could lament Kyle Walker's defensive aberration that presented the first equaliser to Wayne Rooney and Mike Dean's decision to punish Hugo Lloris's challenge on Danny Welbeck with the penalty for Rooney's second.
Villas-Boas described the award as very unfair, chiefly because he felt that Lloris had not raised his hands as Welbeck went away from him. It was clear he believed the United forward had initiated the contact and he grumbled about the referee not having been in a good position.
But the good thing for Villas-Boas was the way his team allied speed and decisiveness in possession to their intensity and, above all, earned their applause from the crowd at full-time. He suggested Tottenham deserved to win, which was debatable, but they certainly deserved something. There were goals (Hallelujah), finally taking Tottenham's league return into double figures – Sandro's was an absolute screamer – and Villas-Boas managed to bend the narrative to his will. This was a tale of Tottenham's strength of character, a ballsy bounce back. Villas-Boas can look forward with greater security.
The Portuguese had twisted again with his line-up, starting with Paulinho as his most advanced central midfielder and giving Nacer Chadli his first minutes in the league since late September on the left, which seemed a big call and was not entirely rewarded.
Left wing remains a problem position and the jamming of square pegs seems to characterise the search for the solution. There was no place for the record signing, Erik Lamela, in the squad.
Paulinho played well in his new position but it was the decision to show faith in Lennon on the right that looked inspired. He tends to play well against the United left-back, Patrice Evra, and he harried him; Lennon also stood up to him in the shoulder-to-shoulder challenges. More importantly, though, he made offensive inroads against Evra and, when he flitted inside, he carried a threat. He ran on to the tireless Roberto Soldado's fine through-ball in the 30th minute to draw a save from David de Gea. That was at the end of the first-half purple patch when the White Hart Lane crowd were bellowing encouragement and their team looked primed to add to Walker's low free-kick which had double-bluffed the United defensive wall.
There was more than one heart-stopping moment for the visitors but most worrying was the move that Soldado fired with a glorious flick to Paulinho and then fluffed from the return ball with a slightly off-balance shot over the crossbar.
There was good and bad in several Tottenham players, particularly Walker and Soldado, which seemed to reflect the fine margins at play. After Rooney's first goal, the crowd began to chunter when the ball was played backwards. Enter Sandro and a lift, then Lloris and Welbeck and a low. Tottenham have still not beaten United at home since 2001. Villas-Boas could feel the pluses here outweighed the negatives.