Nani drilled in his first goal for Manchester United to hand the champions a precious first win of the season and frustrate a brave Tottenham display.
Nani (right) and Ryan Giggs celebrate the winger's winner
After Robbie Keane hit the bar for Spurs in the first minute United dominated, with Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes going close to an opener.
The visitors held firm, though, and had appeals for a penalty turned down after Wes Brown's apparent handball.
And Nani compounded their misery when he fired in the winner from 25 yards.
It was harsh on Tottenham, who had mixed a solid defensive display with the odd good chance, but United were good value for something from a game they dominated for spells.
Sir Alex Ferguson had boldly stated "we will win the game on Sunday" before the match, and the fact that Spurs had failed to beat United at Old Trafford in nearly 18 years suggested the Scot's pre-match confidence was well placed.
But it was some indication of the recent turmoil surrounding Tottenham that most of the talk before the game centred around Martin Jol's position as manager, rather than the fact that United began the match second from bottom.
The Dutchman cut a relaxed figure before the match, though, and having received vocal support from fans and players in recent days, it was little surprise the visitors began full of purpose.
In fact, there was barely a minute on the clock when Dimitar Berbatov and Steed Malbranque linked up well to set up Keane for the visitors' best first-half effort, the Irishman's curler dipping onto the bar from 20 yards.
With United struggling to find early rhythm, Spurs had plenty of possession and when Rio Ferdinand allowed the ball to run in the box, only a block tackle from Nemanja Vidic prevented Berbatov's shot going in.
However, having seen off Tottenham's early endeavours, United upped the ante on 20 minutes and it was almost exclusively a backs-to-the-wall effort from Spurs for the rest of the half.
First Ryan Giggs's cross-shot was pushed away by Paul Robinson, and then Carrick's rasper from 25 yards was deflected inches past the post.
Scholes was the next United player to go close, clipping over from Giggs's pass, before Nani's run and shot flew past the post.
It was proving a sound defensive effort from Spurs, though it was not hard to understand why United had scored just once in five matches before the game, so lacking was the final pass or shot on occasion.
The second half began much like the first, with the visitors' all-action approach frustrating the visitors, and Rocha wasted a glorious chance to hand the visitors the lead when he headed a Bale free-kick wide from six yards out with the goal gaping.
Gareth Bale and Dimitar Berbatov (right) appeal for a penalty
Suddenly it was Spurs who were asking the questions and Berbatov twice went agonisingly close, the first when he tapped past Edwin van der Sar only for Rio Ferdinand to clear on the line and then when his shot from six yards out struck Brown and flew wide.
Replays suggested the ball struck the defender on the arm and Spurs were furious no spot kick was awarded, but Howard Webb waved the appeals away.
And, as if to add salt into the wound, United took the lead minutes later.
After Carlos Tevez's drilled shot had been cleared off the line by Jenas, the subsequent attack saw the ball fall to Nani 25 yards out and the winger drilled a superb effort into the roof of the net to send the home fans wild.
Jol responded by bringing Adel Taarabt and Jermain Defoe on, but it was Berbatov that came closest to a leveller, the Bulgarian turning and shooting in one movement only for his effort to curl millimetres over.
The ensuing Spurs rally brought little reward as United held out to leap up the table and ensure a difficult week for the Londoners and Jol ended in defeat.
Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson:
"That was narrow, touch and go, nothing to choose between the two sides. They dug in and got forward a bit and there was really nothing in it in the second half.
"I thought we lacked a little bit of confidence. Players are anxious, there is a lot of expectation here, and what was required was to dig in, show great commitment and we did that.
"As for the penalty appeals, at the time they protested so much I thought it was a penalty, but Wes said it has hit him on the chest. It does hit him on the chest, I'm sure of that."
Tottenham manager Martin Jol:
"Of course I am bitterly disappointed because we absolutely deserved something from this game - maybe even the win.
"We were comfortable throughout, I thought, and we had as many chances as they did. Plus we should definitely have had a penalty - Brown has used his arm and spread himself to block the shot like a keeper and you can't do that.
"They scored a marvellous goal but we had chances too, we just needed a bit of luck or a decision to go our way.
"As for me - I'm not under pressure. The chairman's backing me and you can see today how the players are desperate to play for this team so there is no problem."
Man Utd: Van der Sar, Brown, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra, Nani, Hargreaves, Carrick (Eagles 57), Scholes, Giggs, Tevez (Fletcher 77).
Subs Not Used: Kuszczak, Dong, O'Shea.
Booked: Giggs, Brown.
Goals: Nani 68.
Tottenham: Robinson, Chimbonda, Rocha (Zokora 83), Gardner, Lee (Taarabt 75), Malbranque, Jenas, Huddlestone, Bale, Berbatov, Keane (Defoe 75).
Subs Not Used: Cerny, Stalteri.
Booked: Huddlestone, Berbatov, Gardner.
Ref: Howard Webb (S Yorkshire).