The Inability To Protect A 1-0 Lead

“It’s going well but if you start to believe it’s going well, you’re going down.”, said Robin van Persie in an interview with Sky Sports before the game against Spurs. It’s like he knew what was going to happen. There’s probably no better justification to that statement than Spurs’ last-minute equalizer that followed the next day.

Everything seemed to go so well for United up to that moment – except for the penalty that wasn’t given by the linesman following a challenge by Caulker on Rooney – and it could probably go down as United’s best defensive performance of the season. Despite taking the lead via a van Persie header, United couldn’t kill the game off and Spurs got their goal.

In fairness, it was a deserved goal from Spurs as they kept creating chances throughout the game whilst United managed to score from the considerably fewer chance they had. United learned from their mistakes following their defeat at Old Trafford due to the space they conceded – mostly on the left-hand side – and were punished with 2 goals early in the 1st half from Vertonghen and Bale. Sir Alex used Phil Jones as a defensive-minded midfielder to help Rafael in defending against Bale and it worked brilliantly. They kept Bale in their pockets whilst Jones performed his role to excellent effect. However, the space they conceded on Spurs’ right-hand side was punished by the excellent Aaron Lennon who assisted Clint Dempsey’s goal.

It may be frustrating for Sir Alex Ferguson and his men to concede that late equalizer, but what might have frustrated him even more is their inability to kill the game off and hanging on to their slender lead. It might have worked in recent games such as the one against Liverpool, but unfortunately not this time. When the clock shows 90 minutes + stoppage time and you’re defending a slender lead, not only does it invite the opposition to bomb forward but it causes a sense of panic to the defending team.

The only way to prevent this from happening is to retain possession and stay calm. That’s when you need the experience from the likes of Giggs and Scholes. This is an interesting point because that’s what Ferguson usually does in situations like these when scoring a goal can’t be done, retaining possession is the only way to protect a slender lead. His substitutions yesterday was disappointing and it didn’t help at all. Wayne Rooney wasn’t playing his best game and replaced Shinji Kagawa who was brilliant throughout the game. Nor could Ferguson justify the substitution of Tom Cleverley with Antonio Valencia, who has been awfully poor in the last month or so. It would’ve probably been a better decision for Ferguson to bring on Giggs, who with his experience and recent form might have probably win the game for United.

Defending isn’t United’s thing this season. To make it worse, protecting a 1-0 scoreline for 75 minutes is really hard to do nowadays, despite United’s impressive defensive performance. Although the thing most people will point out is De Gea’s inability to deal with the cross which led to Aaron Lennon’s assist. Yes, he could have and should have done better with that cross in the first place. But with Vidic right in front of him – like he did against Fulham at Old Trafford – it’s not really an easy thing to do. Everyone knows De Gea isn’t the most physically developed keeper but his goal-line ability is fantastic. Some would say he cost United 2 points, but some would also say that United were lucky to go home with 1. His saves for Dempsey’s clear-cut chance earlier in the game and the deflected shot saved United from further embarrassment.

In fairness, the game could have gone either way. If United were rewarded the penalty then they might have came home with 3 points. Or if De Gea had not saved the shots, United might have conceded more than 1. But all this didn’t happen. The case when United had that 1-0 lead, they should have protected it. The subs didn’t help, there was lack of communication for De Gea’s mistake, and Spurs got their deserved point. This game might be crucial in the title race/the race for top four (or not). Spurs might have seen it as 1 point gained, United might have seen it as 2 points lost. Time will tell, but if it were to be significant – for United especially – it’s down to their inability to protect the 1-0 lead.

This piece was written by Hanif Dean, you can follow him on Twitter here, you can also check out his blog, Last Minute Strikes.