Shaun Botterill - Getty Images
Tottenham's victory at Old Trafford yesterday was not a fluke - it had been coming for a very long time.
In 1969, the psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published "On Death And Dying", a groundbreaking work which laid out 'The Five Stages Of Grief' felt by patients coming to terms with their own mortality, or the death of a loved one. According to Kübler-Ross, the five stages were Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance.
Had she been around yesterday, she might well have used the reaction of Manchester United supporters to defeat at the hands of perennial Old Trafford whipping-boys Tottenham Hotspur to illustrate her point. Spurs had not won at United since 1989, and so the victory always had the potential to carry with it a sense that times were changing, and not just in the form of an improvement in North London. Denial was certainly the order of the day for some United fans, and while Tottenham had to endure the expected second-half onslaught from United, it was not the traditional one. Spurs were able to pull a goal back, and though it may not have been until the 89th minute or so that some of the home crowd began to have unclean thoughts that they may not win the game, it would be generous to say that the goal was coming.
Some moved onto anger immediately, placing the blame with Sir Alex Ferguson for making such a disastrous selection, with Ryan Giggs totally unsuited to cope with Tottenham's energetic midfield as well as being hopelessly out of form, and Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes ill-suited to defend at speed in a transitional stage of play. As all discussions about United's failing eventually must do, the rage turned to the Glazer ownership that was ultimately to blame for such a midfield having to take to the pitch.
As for bargaining, that came in the few hours after the result as fans attempted to rationalise the defeat. "If you think about it", bleated one unnamed Tweeter, "we always lose away to Liverpool and beat Spurs at home. So it's the same as we'd normally get." In the psychiatric hypothesis, this is often suggested to involve requests to a higher power. After the game, Ferguson made the point that United had not been given enough added time and suggested that time-keeping duties be taken out of the hands of the referee.
At the moment, we're in the midst of depression, a stage that needs no further explanation, and were it not for Manchester City having gotten off to a sluggish start, United's woes would be louder and more distressing. The question is, then: how do we get to acceptance? Can the defeat be shrugged off so simply: as a fluke, or just one game?
The idea that Tottenham were fortunate to win does have some weight to it. Villas-Boas earned plenty of praise for the historic victory, but some will question how much credit he deserves for it. In the ludicrous four-minute spell just after half-time in which three goals were scored, there were more than a few Chelsea fans gloating over Tottenham's ill-discipline thanks to 'AVB-ball' (although they did also admit that it was highly enjoyable to watch when it wasn't your own team being put through it.) Whether the decision to sit back and abandon the pressing game that had destroyed United in the first half was a conscious one or not, Spurs certainly could've looked more secure than they did.
And yet, it would be unfair to say that Villas-Boas was lucky. Not because it was a historic victory, and he deserves a break, or because he's been unfairly castigated by certain sections of the English press. It was a deserved victory because, from a more red-tinted perspective, it was one that has been coming for a long time. It was the final point at which United's attacking riches could not overcome their inability to control a game. Mental strength has always been an underrated aspect of football, but there comes a point when no amount of determination is going to succeed and a lack of resources begin to tell. For United, that point came at the final whistle yesterday.
The inevitability of such a defeat has been particularly obvious this season, with the number of times United have conceded early goals and been forced to come from behind already. The problem is obvious: their lack of a midfield means they are simply incapable of coping with pressing. Without Paul Scholes, there are few teams incapable of harrying them into errors and lacklustre spells of play, and with Scholes, they improve, but still shrink against a well-organised team of quality players pressing as Spurs did yesterday. Tottenham are a good and improving team, but one in a minor transitional stage of development - not a great side. As a result, they could only keep up such a plan for one half. It proved to be enough for them, but United will play better-organised and higher-quality teams than Tottenham, teams that can keep up the pace for 60 or 75 minutes. In other words, the better United's opposition, the less time they have to win the game.
It's often noted that Ferguson's greatest asset is his ability to renovate and rebuild, but in order to do that, he's had to possess the analytic skills and personal conviction to determine the difference between an unfortunate defeat and one that was self-inflicted. Yesterday's result could easily be portrayed as the former, with United being denied several penalty shouts and Wayne Rooney hitting the post from a free-kick, but their fatal flaws are becoming more apparent with each passing game. As those still stuck in the bargaining stage will tell you, United's victory at Liverpool was an even more fortunate one, and a game in which exactly the same problems were encountered, even after the opposition's reduction to ten men.
The Glazers can never be criticised enough, but now Ferguson must take his share of the blame too. Not only for the insanity of his team selection, but for the fact that United have spent considerably in recent seasons and are still such a limited, flawed team. Building another potential Champions League-winning side with such a budget was always going to be a near-impossible task, but the decision to overlook the midfield becomes more baffling with every fixture.
Of all the sad sights yesterday, perhaps the worst was seeing Shinji Kagawa barely featuring, unable to get a touch on the ball. At times, it has seemed like Ferguson has no idea how to use him, and he seems to exemplify United's transfer policy which has left them with plenty of talented players but a team and squad that is beginning to look disjointed. Unlike other clubs which have made poor transfer decisions, few of the deals look bad in isolation, and so while there may be doubts about the overarching strategy, it should be one which can be saved easily, with perhaps only one or two additions necessary to transform the side into one greater than the sum of its parts. For now, however, they remain considerably less, and yesterday's defeat was the latest and largest in a long series of wake-up calls. The only way to achieve acceptance of yesterday's defeat is to also accept what it has made painfully apparent: United are not good enough, and change is needed.