Manchester United profit from Walkers own goal to beat Tottenham

There was a moment, an hour or so after the final whistle had confirmed a winning start for Manchester United, when Louis van Gaal reminded everyone that it was his birthday and briefly threatened to break into a few lines from When I’m Sixty-Four, the relevant Beatles song. “When you hear what they are singing,” he said, “all my wishes have been fulfilled.”

Well, not quite. Van Gaal might have liked to see his team zip the ball around with greater panache and knowhow. They are still some way short of the quick, pass-them-to-death tempo that was the hallmark of Sir Alex Ferguson’s great teams and, plainly, it remains a work in progress.

“We were lucky today,” the United manager said. All the same, it was still preferable to what happened a year ago against Swansea City, and a relatively satisfying introduction to the season for a team going through all sorts of drama in their goalkeeping department.

Van Gaal should certainly be encouraged, for all the imperfections, by the way his side ultimately made it an afternoon when Sergio Romero, deputising for David de Gea, was only fleetingly troubled. Van Gaal was less impressed that Michel Vorm was involved so infrequently in the opposite goal, but his team did control long passages of play after Kyle Walker had inadvertently put the ball into his own net midway through the first half and, apart from a late flurry, Tottenham’s response to the goal smacked of a team who are undermined by their fragile nerves.

Spurs did have spells when they looked dangerous, but there were long periods when they were obliging opponents, whereas a better side would surely have made more of the fact that United had a new-look defence, a relative stranger in goal and a distinct lack of options in the attacking positions.

Mauricio Pochettino’s team wilted in a way that does not say a great deal for their competitive courage and, having dominated the opening 20 minutes, it was startling to see how passive they became until that late spell of pressure when it seemed to dawn on them again, belatedly, that this United side are nowhere near as formidable as previous versions.

Spurs had started well, but it took them so long to shake their heads clear after going behind that it was not entirely easy to imagine how they plan to narrow the gap to the top four this season.

Instead, United had more of the ball without delivering a performance that was ever more than six out of 10. Ashley Young continued where he left off last season and, on the opposite side, Juan Mata was an elusive and difficult opponent. Memphis Depay showed in little flashes why he was Van Gaal’s first summer signing, but Matteo Darmian was probably the pick of United’s new acquisitions, easing himself in as the team’s new right-back.

United are still lacking the old stardust, and the tempo can feel bland compared to the pinball speed that once bewitched Old Trafford, but their debutants should all be better for the experience and perhaps it was inevitable that, with four new players in their starting lineup – and Bastian Schweinsteiger coming on in the second half – it would not be an entirely cohesive performance. Van Gaal talked afterwards about the new arrivals being too eager to impress and he was almost certainly referring to Morgan Schneiderlin, at the base of their midfield, and Depay, who was operating just behind Wayne Rooney but might be better on the wing. Too often, they could be seen rushing passes.

Spurs were entitled to feel their luck was out, at least to some degree, but more than anything they should regard it as a wasted opportunity. Here was a United side with De Gea sitting in the stand and Spurs really ought to have done more to examine Romero’s credentials, especially in those moments early on when the Argentinian was misplacing passes and looked like he might be suffering a touch of stage fright. Romero had not played a league fixture since Sampdoria against Udinese in Serie A last December but, after an erratic start, he settled down and made a key save in the final exchanges to turn away Christian Eriksen’s drive.

Eriksen will also reflect on Tottenham’s most inviting chance of the opening half, running on to Harry Kane’s clever little up-and-under, and a player of his refinement should probably have applied the right amount of weight to his lobbed attempt rather than landing it on the roof of the net. Otherwise, it was an error-strewn performance from both sides and probably appropriate that the game’s decisive moment stemmed from a moment of carelessness.

Spurs were in danger as soon as Nabil Bentaleb presented the ball straight to Mata and, defensively, they could not get back into position in time. Mata’s pass released Young, criss-crossing to the right, and his low centre picked out Rooney, unmarked on the spot and with enough space to take a touch and steady himself for a shot. The striker was pulling his foot back when Walker, sprinting back, jutted out his foot and diverted the ball into the bottom corner.

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