Despite Manchester United winning four successive matches in the Premier League before Wednesday - and six in all competitions - David Moyes has been unable to harmonise results with the sort of performances that are required to renew hopes of a title challenge. The champions were embarrassingly sloppy at Hull, outplayed for much of their scrappy win over Norwich and eventually paid the price for failing to improve against Tottenham.
A fourth home defeat of the season is more than any other club in the top ten has suffered at this stage, while United have now dropped more points after 20 matches than they did in the entirety of the previous two seasons. We questioned whether a 12-game unbeaten run earlier in the campaign represented a false start or a false recovery - which was proven to be the latter - and until Moyes can instil a more convincing cutting edge in his team they will be destined to continue taking two steps forward, one step back.
Let's not take anything away from Tottenham, however, who leapfrogged United with their biggest result of the season to stand just two points behind Liverpool, to whom they lost 5-0 only two weeks ago. It seems somewhat bizarre that Spurs remain very much in the race for a Champions League place having sacked Andre Villas-Boas for what was perceived to be a disappointing start, but Tim Sherwood deserves enormous credit for steering the team back in the right direction. There has been a sniffy reaction towards Sherwood's appointment, but he is proving his doubters wrong in some style, achieving ten points and nine goals in his first four top-flight fixtures, including a 3-0 win over Stoke that marked Spurs' biggest Premier League victory since December 2012.
Indeed, it can be claimed that Sherwood - a coach who doesn't yet possess his UEFA Pro Licence - outwitted Moyes with his tactics to claim only Spurs' second win at Old Trafford since 1989.
It is clear that Sherwood is a manager who likes to take risks, having switched Spurs to a more attacking formation in recent weeks, but he should also be credited for refining his system during his short tenure. After selecting an adventurous central-midfield partnership of Lewis Holtby and Christian Eriksen in his second match in charge - a 1-1 draw at home to West Brom - Sherwood has since realised the need for solidity in the middle. The convincing win over Stoke was founded on the performances of Mousa Dembele and Paulinho, before a pairing of Dembele and Etienne Capoue helped to win the midfield battle against United in the first hour.
With Dembele and Capoue offering a strong physical presence in front of the back four, Spurs' forward line were given licence to roam on the counter-attack, and it was through two quick breaks that they secured an unassailable 2-0 advantage.
Although this tactic was a key feature of the first goal, we should also acknowledge mistakes from United that led to Emmanuel Adebayor heading home. Firstly, Patrice Evra was caught horribly out of position on the left, while Adnan Januzaj failed to cover for his teammate. It was not the first time in the match Evra was guilty of such an error - allowing Lennon to evade him on Roberto Soldado's through-ball earlier in the first half - and he was also found wanting against Norwich on several occasions on Saturday. Perhaps he simply needs a rest following a busy festive schedule, or are these signs of the decline that encouraged Moyes to bid for Leighton Baines in the summer?
The result of Evra and Januzaj's indiscretions forced Nemanja Vidic to move out of position to close down Eriksen, which in turn left Jonny Evans to fill the space in the middle and Chris Smalling marking Adebayor. This was evidently an enormous mismatch as the defender - who looked uneasy throughout his 61 minutes on the pitch - was easily out-jumped by the striker.
Following his comments on United's young defenders on Tuesday, Moyes will have been hugely disappointed at Smalling's failure to challenge Adebayor on the opening goal.
"I will continue using them but there are always going to be other people to come in," said the manager of Vidic and Rio Ferdinand's futures.
"This club has to have a line of players ready to take their places and push them. The challenge is for the young players to take over."
Now 24, Smalling is running out of excuses for his naivety, and his manager will demand significant improvement between now and the end of the season.
Moyes' failure to address United's lack of cutting edge has been covered at length this season and it remained a key issue on Wednesday. The champions enjoyed what Arsene Wenger would term 'sterile domination' in the first half, as the clear-cut chances in the opening stages soon dried up.
Reliance on crosses
Before Moyes' changes after the break, the champions were hugely reliant on Antonio Valencia's crossing from the right in what appeared to be a rather hit-and-hope approach. That Valencia found a teammate with only one of his 13 deliveries before the break underlines this point, but Smalling-to-Valencia remained United's most frequent passing combination of the match until the former's substitution.
The reliance on crosses is part of a wider problem at United in their quest to impose themselves in the final third. Moyes was clearly fond of this tactic during his reign at Everton - which no doubt influence his interest in Baines - but his methods have not yet yielded the sort of success or free-flowing football his new position demands. United have attempted more crosses from open play than any other team in the top flight this season (correct as of half-time against Tottenham) but rank 17th in crossing accuracy. It is clearly a strategy that requires revision.
United fight back
However, it should also be said that United played well for long periods, especially in the book-ends of the match. They started purposefully, with Danny Welbeck almost profiting from Michael Dawson's lack of pace - an area on which Moyes should have applied more focus - and ended with an onslaught reminiscent of Sir Alex Ferguson's spell in charge and the famous Vince Lombardi quote: "We didn't lose the game; we just ran out of time."
Indeed, it seemed inevitable that United would find an equaliser in the closing stages as Januzaj became more involved on the right. Although Vidic's presence at corners offered their best hope of scoring, the signs of the old fight-back will be encouraging to Moyes and supporters after a distinct lack of urgency in the back-to-back home defeats to Everton and Newcastle at the start of December.
As much as Sherwood deserves praise for Spurs' victory, his absurd decision to replace Capoue with Nabil Bentaleb after 64 minutes was pivotal in United regaining momentum. Tottenham may have scored soon after the youngster's introduction, but they immediately began to unravel thereafter as Welbeck halved the deficit and Wayne Rooney dropped deeper to pull the strings in midfield. It was a substitution that hinted at both naivety and hubris from Sherwood as he basked in the glory of Spurs' lead.
It may be claimed that Moyes' substitutions helped to turn the match in United's favour in the final half-hour, but his decision to move Valencia to right-back was also crucial in Spurs scoring their decisive second goal. Smalling might have been over-powered by Adebayor for Spurs' opening strike, but would he have switched off in the manner Valencia did to allow Eriksen to sneak in?
Adebayor's injury was also a significant factor in Tottenham dropping deeper and deeper to defend their lead as the second half progressed. The striker's diligence played an important role in the visitors establishing a two-goal lead, and his hard work in the final third was sorely missed after he was replaced by the underwhelming Nacer Chadli.
Adebayor has been enormously impressive since his return from the wilderness - scoring four goals in five starts - but Spurs still require more from Soldado following his £26million move in the summer. The Spaniard played a delightful through-ball to create an early chance for Lennon at Old Trafford, but he then missed a gilt-edged opportunity to increase the visitor's lead before half-time.
The stats concerning Soldado's shooting accuracy make for uncomfortable reading at Spurs, with the striker managing a conversion rate of just 3% from open play. Of all the players to score at least five goals in the Premier League this season, Soldado possesses by far the worst shooting accuracy, with just 35% of his total attempts hitting the target. It seems there is no quick-fix to a problem that was influential in Villas-Boas' departure.
United falling behind
Another interesting statistic to come out of this fixture is United's troubles with conceding the first goal of the game. The champions have gone behind in ten of their 20 Premier League matches this season, with only seven clubs conceding first on more occasions.
This was also a problem in Ferguson's final campaign, in which United fell behind 16 times, battling back to win nine of those matches.
If you consider that the champions conceded first in only eight matches in 2011/12 and eight in 2010/11, this points to a worrying trend in the past two years that Moyes must try to reverse. There is a sense that United's unbeatable aura has deserted them this year, and frequently falling behind in matches has played a significant role in that concern.
Januzaj's performance was a silver lining of comfort on another cloudy day for United at Old Trafford. The balletic 18-year-old is an enormous talent and he played the pass of the match to find Welbeck for United's goal. Hopefully Moyes' plans to strengthen in January won't be to the detriment of Januzaj's chances to gain further first-team experience, as he has been a joy to watch thus far.
Of course, there have been questions over Januzaj's tendency to go to ground rather easily and he picked up his third booking for diving this season against Spurs. Although Moyes argued that Howard Webb was wrong to show a yellow card - "A terrible decision. He's got bumped off the ball - a terrible decision" - it appears that Januzaj's reputation now precedes him.
With Welbeck also guilty of taking a tumble in the penalty area and Ashley Young receiving criticism for similar offences, Moyes must work to ensure the problem is eradicated, otherwise United could soon find themselves being denied genuine appeals for free-kicks.
This was arguably the case when Young was brought down by Hugo Lloris' reckless slide in the final stages of the match. As Moyes rightly argued, Howard Webb should have pointed to the spot and possibly dismissed the keeper.
"The goalkeeper comes out, Ashley Young gets the ball before him and he follows through," said Moyes. "It's an incredible decision which didn't go our way, in fact probably the one of the worst I think I saw."
After risking a semi-fit Robin van Persie against Newcastle and subsequently losing the striker to injury for eight weeks, Moyes was perhaps foolish to put Rooney through 90 minutes on his return to action. The striker struggled to get involved in the first half, but despite appearing unfit, he was then forced to drop into a more demanding role in central midfield.
Moyes' decision to change his line-up in this way hinted at his frustration with his midfield options as both Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley were replaced following disappointing displays. With Dembele's telling contribution for Spurs reiterating United's mistake in failing to sign the Belgian from Fulham in 2012, one wonders how Moyes now intends to find a similar leader for the champions' midfield. Marouane Fellaini has not yet reached the required standards and it seems certain United will look for alternatives now the transfer window has opened.