Longwell’s Tactics Column | Man United 2-3 Spurs
Ahoy. Here’s something for you. Straight from the brain of WFRF reader, self-confessed football nerd and all round good sort, here’s Longwell’s tactical breakdown of what was an historic Saturday afternoon at Old Trafford. Chalkboards at the ready…
Man United 2-3 Spurs
Tottenham were extraordinarily lucky to come away with all three points in yet another “game of two halves” with Manchester United.
Andre Villas-Boas selected a largely unsurprising team, setting Spurs up in the familiar 4-2-3-1 formation with Steven Caulker partnering William Gallas in defense, Jan Vertonghen sliding over to left back, and Gareth Bale restored to his usual position of wherever. Clint Dempsey was preferred to Gylfi Sigurdsson for playing in the hole behind the rejuvenated Jermain Defoe.
United lined up in a similar formation, although once the game started their shape was more 4-4-1-1 than 4-2-3-1. In light of Mousa Dembele’s absolute manhandling of the United midfield in his final game for Fulham, it was perhaps a bit surprising that Ferguson elected to start with only two central midfielders, Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes, neither of whom are noted for their athleticism or physicality. Unsurprisingly, the Tottenham midfield simply overpowered them in the opening quarter of the game.
The first half was characterized by a dominant performance by Dembele and Sandro and a strange reluctance by United to put a foot in at any point when a Spurs player was running with the ball in the final third. Vertonghen and Bale each ran the better part of 40 yards completely unmolested before slotting home. Aaron Lennon also had a similarly long diagonal dribbling run that went unchecked, but he couldn’t hit find the target at the end of it.
Ferguson reacted at halftime, introducing the fit-again Wayne Rooney for an utterly anonymous Ryan Giggs. This change, and its knock-on effects, produced a second half that was uncomfortably reminiscent of that amazing Champions League encounter between Barca and Arsenal in 2010 when Barca had the ball in Arsenal’s half for about 43 of the opening 45 minutes.
In the first half Kagawa was parked way high up, looking for through balls in behind the defense and trying to link up almost exclusively with Robin van Persie. That played right into Villas-Boas’ initial strategy as it allowed Sandro to focus on doing what he does best, namely patrolling the space in front of the back four. As a result, he was able to take Kagawa right out of the game as United’s link man. This left Dembele and Dempsey with relatively simple matchups against Carrick and Scholes, and the superior athleticism of the Tottenham duo gave them the better of those battles.
In the second half, Kagawa and Rooney were moving into the space between the lines perfectly and overwhelming Sandro, who now had two men in his zone to worry about: Kagawa drifting inside from his new position on the left and Rooney dropping in from a more central position. Dembele was continuing to push up and trying to help close down Scholes and Carrick, so United constantly had a free man in that pocket of space just in front of the defense. As soon as Dembele started dropping deeper to match up in that area, Scholes had the freedom of the pitch and started completely dictating the game. In the second half, he attempted more than twice as many passes as the entire Tottenham team combined.
United also began pressing much higher and more aggressively, denying Spurs the luxury of playing out through Caulker and Vertonghen. This produced some very ropey moments at the back for Tottenham, two of which resulted in goals conceded. After that, Friedel no longer looked to distribute the ball short and simply lumped it long on virtually every occasion. With Defoe increasingly isolated and having to fight the much bigger Ferdinand and Evans for long balls cleared out of the defensive third, this tactic resulted in United immediately recovering possession and again putting Spurs under pressure. Tottenham had the woodwork and some wayward finishing from van Persie and Patrice Evra to thank for emerging with only the two goals conceded.
Villas-Boas elected to ride out this storm of United attacks with the same team he started with, eschewing substitutions until replacing Dempsey with Sigurdsson at the 70-minute mark. Sigurdsson did reasonably well, providing a fresh pair of legs and a couple pieces of good hold-up play to relieve a bit of pressure, but his introduction did little to stem the tide overall. If Villas-Boas had instead had an energetic holding player such as Scott Parker or Jake Livermore available, it seems likely he would have gone to the bench sooner as Tottenham were largely powerless to stop the United onslaught.
On a similar note, had Adebayor been fit enough to make the journey to Manchester it’s hard to imagine Villas-Boas wouldn’t have brought him on in the second half to give his besieged defense a more reliable outlet than Defoe. Full credit to Defoe for his efforts; the little man ran himself ragged trying to hustle and harry United’s central defenders, and his sensational hold-up play and reverse pass to Bale following Sandro’s ambitious diagonal ball set up the eventual winner.
This was a hugely entertaining game, marked in large part by two managers having to make do with teams that were missing depth in vital areas. Ferguson will have missed a fully fit Fletcher or an in-form Anderson to help his midfield compete physically with Tottenham’s athleticism and drive in the middle. Villas-Boas was hamstrung by the lack of fit defensive midfielders and his only target man, and he couldn’t respond to Ferguson’s halftime re-think as effectively as he might have.