MANCHESTER UNITED VS TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR
New Years Day; and after a couple of wins on the road United were looking to stretch their winning run to seven games and welcome the New Year with a bang.
In: Valencia, Januzaj, Welbeck and Rooney.
Out: Young, Hernandez, Giggs and Kagawa.
- United started this game well; they were bright, confident and assertive. The goal changed the game and United were never really the same again thereafter. They seemed to lose confidence and a sense of purpose. Conversely Tottenham grew in stature after taking the lead.
- Despite United’s positive start Tottenham approached the game with a definitive game plan. Their players stuck to the script, showed great discipline and it worked. United’s approach did not change in response.
- The Tottenham game plan was based around exploiting a perceived United weakness in the fullback areas with disciplined movement. This worked and United’s full-backs all had a bad day. A lack of awareness and poor positioning cost United on both Tottenham goals.
- The changes made in the second half, notably in central midfield highlights the weakness in that area. Rooney was required to drop deeper into this area and eventually Kagawa was asked to play as part of a two man midfield.
- Carrick and Rooney, two key players were both returning from injury, (although Carrick played at Norwich). Both faded. Rooney on reflection was probably not fully fit.
United started this game playing at a high tempo. They pressed Tottenham right from the start and having won the ball passed early, always keeping the ball moving. Initially the shape was a 4-2-3-1, but with Cleverley regularly pushing forward it morphed into a 4-1-4-1. Carrick stayed deep and screened the defence. When he received the ball he moved it quickly and well. This set the tempo.
Some of United’s approach play in the early part of the match was excellent, only breaking down around the edge of the Tottenham area. In that zone United generally did not move the ball quite so well. Tottenham were formed up as a 4-4-2 with Adebayor and Solado as the front two. Behind them were Lennon, Dembele, Capoue and Eriksen. Tottenham often struggled to move the ball out of their own defensive third as United’s front four of Welbeck, Januzaj, Valencia and Rooney pressed with some purpose and often won the ball in high areas. United’s front four were also very fluid in this period, with Cleverley also joining in to form a front five. However they did succeed in pressing Carrick who was left isolated at times as a consequence of Cleverley’s forward movement. In response Carrick dropped deeper and deeper, this reducing his ability to link to United players positioned further forward and generally reduced the effectiveness of his play.
This high tempo start lasted for about half an hour. United looked confident in this period, but things didn’t quite fall for United.
There are a number of interesting points to make about the first half. Tottenham were playing a 4-4-2 but with Eriksen playing quite narrow. With Cleverley pushing on Eriksen was able to cut inside behind him, helping to press Carrick. He was also then able to ensure that Tottenham usually had three in the centre of the pitch and with Carrick and Cleverley becoming detached from each other this often meant three against one. This wasn’t a problem when United had the ball and if they were able to push Tottenham back, but it allowed Tottenham to work a number of breakaway moves with some ease throughout the game.
Eriksen’s movement inside posed a question for Smalling at right back. Should he follow him inside or stay in position. Generally he chose to stay in position and took opportunities to go on strong surging runs forward. This was seen as early as the first five minutes and resulted in perhaps United’s best chance of the half. Smalling ran into space with a strong run through the inside right channel exploiting space between the Tottenham central defence and right back. He shot firmly but straight at the keeper.
There was often space in this area for United to attack, but they rarely did so thereafter.
Another interesting aspect of the first half was Tottenham’s attempts to exploit the space behind the United full backs. With Eriksen cutting inside and with Januzaj and to a lesser extent Valencia playing fairly narrow there was space for both Evra and Smalling to push forward into. This left space behind for Soldado, Lennon and Adebayor to work. They did this with some conviction. A warning regarding this came as early as the 14th minute when Evra was caught out by Lennon running onto a diagonal pass. United were very fortunate to escape on that occasion.
Despite all this United were on top for the first half hour with the lion’s share of possession. They actually created very few clear cut chances in this period. Why?
You can identify two reasons. Firstly United’s movement and passing was perhaps a little too frantic. A high tempo passing game is often effective, but only if there is a method behind it. Perhaps United’s play lacked guile and the nous to seriously open Tottenham up. It is clear that United lack the craft to create chances through the middle of a well organized competent side. Secondly because of this inability to go through the centre United moved the ball sideways and looked to deliver crosses. Unfortunately the crosses were poor. This has been a feature of United’s play for several years now, (off and on), but against Tottenham it was particularly poor. Moving the ball wide also meant that Tottenham always had time to get into their defensive shape.
It was perhaps inevitable that United’s tempo would drop and having not got a goal it was also perhaps inevitable that Tottenham would score. The goal, a breakaway was against the run of play, but was well taken. Januzaj lost the ball and Evra was caught up field and out of position. Christian Eriksen was able to advance and get a cross in which was met by Adebayor who timed his jump to perfection. It’s unfair to say that he out jumped Smalling because Smalling, who was badly positioned, had lost Adebayor at the far post and was struggling to adjust. Both full-backs were at fault.
The goal seemed to shock United and the confidence seemed to go out of the side. Thereafter Tottenham seemed more confident and had another good chance to score again soon after their goal.
So United started the second half chasing the game. Unfortunately for United fans hoping for a response none came initially. The shock of the breakaway goal didn’t jolt United into a renewed effort and the high tempo start to the first half was not repeated at the start of the second. Tottenham stuck to their game plan, looking to hit United on the break and exploit space behind the United fullbacks; continued to look the more confident side.
As a consequence after 59 minutes David Moyes made his first changes. Smalling and Carrick were withdrawn and Kagawa and Hernandez were introduced. Valencia now dropped to right back, Januzaj was moved across to the right and Kagawa went to the left. Rooney dropped back into midfield and Welbeck partnered Hernandez as a notional front two, but with Welbeck slightly behind Hernandez. United were now closer in shape to the Tottenham shape but the changes did not really see United get the upper hand.
Shortly after on 66 minutes Tottenham scored again. Tottenham broke and with Evra badly positioned they were able to exploit space behind the United right back. Valencia seemed to have the cross covered but he was asleep and allowed Eriksen to steal in to score with a late run past him. Valencia didn’t seem to know Eriksen was there.
Boom! United now scored almost immediately. This time it was United’s opportunity to exploit space. Perhaps emboldened by the goal Eriksen was caught out of position allowing Januzaj to thread a pass into the inside right channel as United broke quickly. Welbeck ran onto the pass and coolly finished. Is this further evidence of Welbeck’s improved confidence in front of goal? It was also reward for Januzaj who had those far had a difficult afternoon up against the combative Walker. Switched to the other wing he at last had some success.
United of course were still chasing the game. Rooney now dropped deeper and deeper to pick up possession and constantly looked for an early pass to Januzaj on the right. United had some success with this and it looked as if they might stage a late comeback. The problem was that the quality of the crossing remained low. Another problem was that Hernandez didn’t seem to have picked up the pace of the game which was becoming increasingly stretched. Welbeck dropped deep to link play, attempting to play between the lines. Kagawa on the left came fairly narrow, (as he always seems to do), but to little effect.
United’s late charge
On 84 minutes desperation set in and Moyes removed Cleverley and introduced Young. Kagawa now moved back into midfield alongside Rooney with Young playing narrow on the left. Young had some success here running through the inside left channel and United now looked better balanced. Young was unlucky not to get a penalty late on when he has taken out by Lloris in the Tottenham goal for what looked like a stonewall shout. It wasn’t given, it wasn’t United’s day and Tottenham took the spoils.
United started this game well but lost their way when their initial push came to nothing. Tottenham had a game plan stuck to it and were able to hit United with two breakaway goals to leave United chasing the game. United’s efforts to get back into the game became increasingly desperate with Moyes ending the game without a recognized specialist midfield player on the pitch. That tells a story in itself.
United currently do not seem to have the creative wit to go though the centre of opponents, particularly when a team is prepared to sit deep in a defensive shape. In that situation, which United often face at Old Trafford, their instinct is to move the ball wide. Unfortunately the quality of their crosses is often too low to be effective. Which inevitably brings us back to the midfield issue?