2014 is not a year that many Manchester United fans will remember fondly. Admittedly, Ryan Giggs’ short stint as manager was wrapped up in gooey romanticism and Patrice Evra’s thunderbolt at the Allianz were memorable, but the majority of the past twelve months has been about a club coming to grips with its limitations, and lowering its expectations. With Louis van Gaal now at the helm, and the club seemingly on course for a Champions League return next season, things are certainly ending on a positive note, overall. This goalless draw against a Tottenham side that United have failed to beat since 2012 won’t end the year with any sense of distinction, but as these last twelve months proved time and time again, United could have fared far worse.
This presented something of a reverse of United’s current habits. During this eight game unbeaten run, they have enjoyed wins without creating a multitude of chances, but at White Hart Lane, not only were they well on top for large chunks of the first half, but they passed up several presentable opportunities to break the deadlock. Admittedly, Hugo Lloris was in fine form, his best save a last-gasp tip from Ashley Young’s beautifully struck curling effort from the edge of the box, but there were times when United’s forwards made it too easy for the Frenchman. Having failed to beat Spurs in their last four meetings, it was fair to assume that the home side would pose a stern test for Van Gaal but in truth, the visitors should have been out of sight by half time.
Quite how they weren’t is still something of a mystery. Robin van Persie should have headed Juan Mata’s lofted pass beyond Lloris, but instead took two extra touches and lifted the ball harmlessly upwards barely a metre out, allowing the Spurs captain to recover. Phil Jones had the ball in the net from a corner only for the referee’s assistant to correctly flag for offside from Van Persie’s initial header. Radamel Falcao, enjoying his third consecutive start looked bright and energetic, looking more and more akin to the man United had hoped they were loaning from Monaco, but his sharpness in front of goal is yet to fully return if those two close range opportunities fired at Lloris are anything to go by. Spurs’ defending owed much to a second fluffed effort, as his shot looped up unintentionally under pressure, but Falcao still retains the air of a man who is desperate to score, as opposed to certain.
Surprisingly for a team that had posed United such problems in recent seasons, Spurs spent the first half looking timid. Harry Kane almost got on the end of Andros Townsend’s drilled effort, but Mauricio Pochettino’s side had little to shout about before the opening period drew to a close. Paddy McNair was given his first start since his enforced early bath against Southampton, yet the Northern Irishman was largely untroubled, and coped well in United’s back three.
Whether it was fatigue, or a change to the home side’s shape, the visitors weren’t the same team after the break. Antonio Valencia’s departure for Rafael, presumably in an effort to get the Brazilian back up to full fitness ended up blunting United’s attacks down the right flank, and they struggled to trouble the host much thereafter. Spurs eventually became more adventurous once they realised their opponents had hit a wall and were posing little threat, but the best chance of the half still fell to a red shirt, with Juan Mata blazing over from close range after Van Persie had fashioned space and a great cross.
The Spaniard, normally noticeably subdued away from Old Trafford, had enjoyed a useful afternoon’s workout but this was a missed opportunity he won’t be dying to relive when the team sits down to dissect this match.
It seems trite to blame the level of performance on a packed fixture list, especially when you consider that Burnley entertained Liverpool at Turf Moor on Boxing Day before battling back from two goals down to earn a 2-2 draw at the Etihad 48 hours later, but this was a game featuring two sides who were seemingly comfortable to go through the motions as the clock ticked down.
United didn’t offer much in the second half, and Spurs, despite a slight increase in menace struggled to trouble David de Gea on a consistent basis. As such, a draw suited both in the end, with Chelsea and Manchester City’s failures to win meaning the gap at the top failed to increase. It wasn’t the strongest way to sign off a calendar year that has been frequently difficult for Manchester United, but given some of the horrors that 2014 had brought with it, it certainly wasn’t the worst.