The striker was Spurs' unsung hero at Old Trafford and showed the team do not need Luka Modric to be a lethal attacking force
This was three separate contests condensed into a single, breathless period of 90 minutes. There was the first-half pattern, where Spurs were superior at passing, pressing and counter-attacking. This was followed by a manic period of end-to-end football immediately after half-time, before Spurs conceded the midfield battle and focused on last-ditch defending for the final half hour.
Tottenham took command through a combination of patient possession play and powerful running. André Villas-Boas's side started strongly, with Sandro sitting deep and Mousa Dembélé and Clint Dempsey in advanced positions, forming triangles around Manchester United's midfielders.
Jan Vertonghen was an unlikely source for the opening goal, especially as United seemed to target him in the first half, constantly hitting long balls towards Nani. Vertonghen's directness in possession was the theme of the first half, and will be a key feature of Spurs' approach throughout the 2012-13 season.
Luka Modric's departure robbed Spurs of their most astute passer, and by replacing him with Dembélé, a converted forward who runs past defenders readily, their midfield has a very different bent. It was an accidental tactical shift – Villas-Boas was desperate to sign João Moutinho instead – but it proved very useful at Old Trafford. Dembélé led Spurs' fight with four successful dribbles – and United had been warned about his threat after his excellent display at Old Trafford in a Fulham shirt only a month ago.
Gareth Bale's goal was another fine example of Tottenham's dribbling at the heart of United's defence. Questions must be asked of United's backline – particularly Rio Ferdinand – but Jermain Defoe deserves huge credit for his off-the-ball movement for both first-half goals. For Vertonghen's strike, he saw Rafael da Silva moving up the pitch trying to stick tight to Bale, so drifted out towards the left flank. This dragged Ferdinand wildly out of position into the right-back zone, opening up space in the centre of the pitch, exploited eagerly by Vertonghen.
His movement for the second goal was even better. Realising Bale's speed had led Spurs into a two-versus-two situation on the break, the striker again darted left, taking Jonny Evans into a position behind Ferdinand, so Bale was presented with space to run into to the right. Defoe won't be credited with an assist – he didn't touch the ball in either move – but his contribution was vital.
United have looked vulnerable to different types of attacking on consecutive weekends – they were unable to compete with Liverpool's ball retention last Sunday, and were uncomfortable against Spurs' direct play here. The two problems have the same root cause – the lack of a ball-winning midfielder.
Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick's passing ability is renowned, however, and Tottenham's early pressing to limit their influence was highly impressive. The stamina and defensive work shown by the attacking players disproved theories that the players aren't committed to Villas-Boas's project, and United's first-half passing was toothless.
After the early second-half madness, prompted by a rollicking from Sir Alex Ferguson and the addition of Wayne Rooney to provide extra movement, Tottenham sat back. Dembélé played alongside Sandro, the wide players dropped deep, and United dominated possession to a staggering extent – they completed 392 second-half passes to Tottenham's 35.
Villas-Boas attempted to maintain Tottenham's energetic midfield pressing, replacing Dempsey with Gylfi Sigurdsson and telling Dembélé to get tight to Scholes, but this left Carrick free – and his players were simply too tired to keep on chasing. Eventually he brought on Tom Huddlestone to sit deep, allowed United the run of midfield and relied on scrappy, old-fashioned penalty-box defending to secure a famous victory.
In the 2-1 defeat of Arsenal, Roberto Di Matteo persisted with three true playmakers behind Fernando Torres, a system he used in the previous weekend's nervous 1-0 win over Stoke City when Oscar, Eden Hazard and Juan Mata all bunched in the centre of the pitch and made Chelsea's attacks predictable.
Against Arsenal there was more understanding and balance to the side – Hazard was generally on the left and Mata the right, with both staying wider and stretching Arsenal more. The only problem on Saturday was the lack of defensive protection for the full-backs – Kieran Gibbs moved forward unchecked a few times to cross, while Hazard defended poorly against Carl Jenkinson, allowing Arsenal time and space on the right flank. It was a surprise that Di Matteo waited until the 85th minute to introduce Ryan Bertrand to help Ashley Cole defensively.
Di Matteo acknowledged that his creative players need more time together on the training ground before the system becomes fluent, but there was a marked improvement from the Stoke game.
Southampton's weaknesses played into Everton's hands perfectly on Saturday afternoon. While David Moyes's side focus on creating overloads down the flanks this season, Southampton's biggest weakness is the lack of defensive awareness from the wide midfielders. Everton were able to create two-against-one situations in wide positions easily, and two of their three goals arrived after crosses from wide positions.
Equally important was the calm, steady distribution from the centre of midfield. Both Phil Neville and Leon Osman finished with 94% pass completion rates, happy to play disciplined passing roles to suit the strategy rather than playing forward passes into attack. Osman played left of centre and most frequently passed to left-back Leighton Baines, while Neville played right of centre and most frequently passed to right-back Seamus Coleman, encouraging them both forward. Everton are playing fine attacking football, but it remains typical Moyes – methodical and strategic.
Michael Cox is the editor of the tactics website zonalmarking.net