Under the eyes of the Stretford End Brad Friedel finished the match with a heroic block from Javier Hernández's full-blooded drive. In the other goalmouth David de Gea was still ruminating over his own contribution to the final minutes of the match, a missed catch that allowed Jermain Defoe to smack a volley against the woodwork followed by a fumble around the foot of the post from Tom Huddlestone's crashing 30-yarder. Friedel – any sane person's nomination for the man of the match, ahead even of the startlingly impressive Danny Welbeck – had finished up on the wrong end of a 3-0 defeat while De Gea could contemplate another victory earned despite his own callowness.
A couple of hours earlier Edwin van der Sar had taken a seat in the Old Trafford directors' box, looking down on two goalkeepers – one of them his exact 40-year-old contemporary, the other precisely half his age – making different kinds of debuts for their respective clubs. At this stage most United supporters would probably rather have had the retired Dutchman out on the pitch.
At one end stood Friedel, a much admired veteran making his 427th appearance in the English league since joining Liverpool in 1997 and his first in the Tottenham Hotspur colours. After three seasons at Anfield, eight at Ewood Park and three more at Villa Park, his sustained excellence persuaded Harry Redknapp to offer him a two-year contract this summer and to select him ahead of the engagingly fallible Heurelho Gomes for Tottenham's deferred start to the domestic campaign.
At 20, and making his home league debut last night, De Gea is the designated heir to Harry Gregg, Alex Stepney, Peter Schmeichel and Van der Sar and is under special scrutiny after making a hash of Edin Dzeko's 25-yard effort in the Community Shield and allowing Shane Long's shot to squirm under his body at The Hawthorns in his first Premier League match. On both occasions he was saved from serious embarrassment by United's ingrained ability to snatch a last-gasp victory.
In last night's opening minute he showed that in one respect at least he recalls the man he was bought to replace. Van der Sar was the owner of feet as eloquent as those of all but the very best outfield players, his distribution of the moving ball often a source of dangerous attacks – and on two occasions last season his perceptive passes led directly togoals. De Gea's precise early clearance initiated a swift counterattack, the top of Ashley Young's head redirecting the ball to Wayne Rooney, who returned it for Young to play Welbeck into the Spurs penalty area.
Friedel was the first to come under direct threat, when Young raced through in the inside-left position in the eighth minute before squaring the ball to Tom Cleverley, whose sidefoot shot from 22 yards was turned round the post. Five minutes later there was the hint of another embarrassment for De Gea when Rafael van der Vaart sensed that the Spaniard was about to dally on the ball and nipped in to stealit, only to trip his opponent as the goalkeeper stepped inside the Dutchman's lunge. Here was an indication that the recruit is still getting the measure of the pace and intensity of the Premier League.
Tame shots and easy saves were the routine for most of the remainder of the first period – Friedel from Young, De Gea first from a rare right-footed effort from Gareth Bale and then from Van der Vaart's half-hit drive from distance. Friedel could only watch as Young headed Wayne Rooney's astute chip just past the angle but his authority was absolute as he plucked the same player's inswinging corner off the head of the otherwise unchallenged Phil Jones. Two minutes before the interval Bale, this time using his favoured left foot, drew a solid diving stop from De Gea.
After an evenly balanced first half United resumed as though their manager had connected them to the mains and flicked the switch. Now De Gea was a virtual spectator as his team-mates surged forward, requiring Friedel to summon all his experience and solidity.
An intricate build-up that criss-crossed the face of the Tottenham area ended with Rooney squaring the ball to Young, whose powerful shot from 25 yards brought a diving save from the American. Then came a double parry as he knocked away Anderson's 22-yard drive and sprang to his feet to repel Rooney's effort from the rebound.
The Tottenham defence, impressive in its individual contests in the first half, left Friedel naked and helpless for all three goals, first when Welbeck rose to turn in Cleverley's diagonal cross with a glancing header, then as Anderson met Welbeck's backheeled return pass with a brusque short-range shot and finally when Rooney nodded Ryan Giggs's cross inside the post. Between times the American did his best to prevent an avalanche while up at the other end a much younger man could only stand and admire something close to a master class, one no less impressive for being given in defeat.