Jermain Defoe's deft movement provides Tottenham with fresh threat

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 eekends – 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.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Michael Cox, for The Guardian on Sunday 30th September 2012 23.00 Europe/London

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