MANCHESTER UNITED vs TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR
15.03.2015

After defeat in the FA Cup quarter final in their previous fixture United returned to league action looking to earn three valuable points in pursuit of a top four finish.  This was the first of several games over the coming weeks against teams at the higher end of the table.

PERSONNEL

In: Jones, Carrick and Mata.
Out: Rojo, Shaw and Di Maria.

KEYPOINTS

  • Is this a glimpse of the future? 4-3-3, early passing setting a high tempo, width in possession and pressing high when the opposition had the ball. Let’s hope so.
  • United’s midfield three here looked well balanced. Carrick provided stability and security, Fellaini and Herrera pressed and moved to create passing angles when United had the ball. Importantly there was bravery and invention.
  • United were solid in defence and Smalling in particular was excellent. He had the celebrated Harry Kane in his pocket and even found time to come forward whenever there was space in front of his position. In doing so he often looked like a cross between a drunken gazelle and Gordon McQueen!
  • Mata played narrow whilst Young played wide. Both were mobile and positive and carried a threat. Rooney gave an exhibition of solo centre-forward play.
  • The most impotent factor in United’s success here was the tempo of their passing. For the first time in months there were passages of play where it seemed almost instinctive. As a consequence United’s possession was menacing.
  • The first half was probably United’s best half of football of the season. With the game won United were more cautious after the break and whilst Tottenham had more possession they created very little. United controlled the game.

FIRST HALF

Considering this was probably the best half of football United have produced this season it could have all gone horribly wrong in the first five minutes courtesy of a misdirected and over hit back pass from Jones. De Gea did well to turn that around the post but United also struggled to clear the subsequent corner. When they had cleared this danger they then settled down into a good rhythm.

First half  Michael-Carrick-Man-United

It terms of formation United were set up as a 4-3-3 whilst Tottenham started as a 4-2-3-1. The key for United was that Carrick was positioned as the single defensive midfield player in front of the defence. That meant that Blind moved to left back behind. Rather than recount a blow by blow account of the first half incidents it seems more appropriate to focus on what United did right here. Let’s start with Carrick.

Amongst United fans opinion has always been divided about Carrick, but he is van Gaal’s type of player. We commented in our review of the Arsenal game that when introduced in the second half Carrick tended to move the ball quicker than others had done in the first half and that importantly he moved the ball forward rather than sideways. The down side in that game was that partnered with Blind United’s central midfield sat deep and surrendered space to Arsenal. This didn’t happen here because ahead of Carrick Fellaini and Herrera pressed Tottenham, constantly. In this they were ably assisted by Mata dropping deep and narrow from the right and Rooney dropping deep from the centre. Carrick’s passing was excellent in the first half and set the tone for the whole team, calm under pressure, moving the ball quickly forward or switching the play.

Ander Herrera - outstanding

Ander Herrera – outstanding

As a consequence this was perhaps the first real glimpse of what van Gaal is trying to achieve. United played high tempo, possession based football with early passing and width, (Young tended to stay wide on the left unlike Mata on the right so this was a little lob sided and in truth Tottenham’s right was truly awful with Dier and Walker both having first half nightmares). When United had the ball they moved it quickly spreading the play and stretching out across the width of the pitch; making the pitch big. When they lost the ball they pressed Tottenham in a co-ordinated way led by Herrera and Fellaini with Carrick closing the space and leading the defence with him into a high position; making the pitch small. The defining factors here were tempo and bravery, but above all United’s football was brave.

Mata tended to come inside and generally played in a narrow position

Mata tended to come inside and generally played in a narrow position

After their nervous start Jones and Smalling were assured; Smalling particularly had an excellent defensive game nullifying the threat from Tottenham’s latest hero Harry Kane. Kane was isolated by United’s assertiveness. Eriksen did not see enough of the ball to pose a threat. Smalling also found time to come forward with the ball making him the extra man in midfield. There were memories of a marauding Gordon McQueen in this, but as @Ch1ves has pointed out his passing was so inaccurate that maybe it was a bit more like Hayley McQueen, (thanks Sean).

Young stayed wide

Young stayed wide

Others who deserve a mention are Young whose incisive running on the left had a new urgency that resulted in genuine menace and in this he was ably assisted by Fellaini and Blind. Rooney too was excellent; tireless in his running, both at the front and when dropping deep. Mata constantly worked the ball inside to and from Herrera. Valencia tended to stay deeper and was more cautious. This was no bad thing as Mata is not the most defensively minded player.

The stand-out players though were the midfield three around whom the pattern of play whirled. Herrera and Fellaini had probably their best games in a United shirt with Carrick providing the security behind them controlling the angle of attack and controlling space.

And so to describe the goals. United’s first goal came from Fellaini. Blind pushed the ball inside to an advancing Carrick who pushed the ball down the inside left channel for Fellaini to run onto. He had a lot to do but ran on and coly shot across Lloris into the far corner. Again tempo was the critical thing here but the press had pushed Tottenham back so that Carrick had time to see the pass. That goal came after 9minutes. Boom! Fellaini went mad with his celebration.

Fellaini strike

Fellaini strike

The next goal came after 19minutes. Mata delivered a corner from the right which was headed back across goal by Fellaini and half cleared by a Tottenham outstretched leg. The ball popped up in front of Carrick who carefully, deliberately and accurately placed his header into the far corner. Boom!

Carrick guided header

Carrick guided header

United continued to press and it looked for a while as if Tottenham would be completely overwhelmed. Inevitably Pochettino had to make a change. He removed Townsend after xx minutes and introduced Dembele. Tottenham went to a narrow 4-4-2 in an attempt to get more bodies in the middle of the pitch. This worked after half time, presumably after a discussion in the dressing room but it made very little difference before the break.

Rooney knockout blow

Rooney knockout blow

United then scored again after 34minutes and again this can be attributed to the press. Tottenham defence were now seeing pressure that wasn’t there and Bentaleb played a square pass straight to Rooney. Rooney still had plenty to do but he was able to beat two defenders with pace and power and with two others close by shot into the corner of the net. This was a goal of determination which reminded one of the young Rooney of ten years ago. Boom!

United had other chances in the half and could have scored more. Tottenham were poor but the overriding sense one was left with at half time was that United seemed to have found energy, drive and bravery to play an almost instinctive football. Van Gaal has talked this year about footballers playing with their brains, but too much thinking can slow you down. If you know the script you shouldn’t have to think about it too much. Have United finally learnt their lines?

Half Time 3-0.

SECOND HALF

With a three goal lead United were always going to be a bit more deliberate in their approach in the second half. They came out and played as brightly as they had in the first half for the first few minutes but it was noticeable that they were sitting a little deeper and their football was a little less adventurous. This made a difference and allowed Tottenham to keep the ball for longer.

The story of the second half is that Tottenham had good periods of possession but were unable to do anything with it because United controlled the space and kept their shape. Van Gaal is a coach of the 4-3-3 school and he will no doubt have been pleased to see his charges use it so well. United had additional chances in the second period and could have scored more but settled for what they had rather than pushing for more which might have seen them trip themselves up. The third goal in the first half probably determined this. If the score was 2-0 at half time then United would have been obliged to take more initiative as if they surrendered that initiative to Tottenham they would perhaps have run the risk of allowing the visitors back into the game.

A lower pass completion average than usual, 83percent - United taking more risks - braver football

A lower pass completion average than usual, 83percent – United taking more risks – braver football

As a result the second half was a bit of a non-event. Van Gaal made three substitutions from the 77th minute onwards; Pereira replaced Mata (straight swap on 77minutes) Falcao replaced Fellaini, (on 83minutes with Falcao moving up front and Rooney dropping deep) and Rafael replaced Carrick (on 87minutes with Blind moving to the defensive midfield position and Rafael playing as the left back). Oh and Tottenham managed a shot on target in the 89th minute.

CONCLUSION

There is a school of thought that Louis van Gaal doesn’t know what he is doing and that his way of playing is too slow and cautions for United fans tastes. There is another school of thought that he cannot play the way his teams traditionally play, that he cannot embrace his usual tactical approach because his squad is unbalanced and uneven in quality. In other words the squad isn’t good enough. Whilst there is some truth in the latter assertion that the squad is unbalanced and uneven this match gives the lie to both points of view. This performance illustrates the key tenants of Van Gaal’s “philosophy”; attacking possession based football played with width making the pitch big when you have the ball, pressing the opposition to make the pitch small when you don’t have the ball, high tempo early passing stretching the opposition.

A lower possession percentage as a consequence of taking more risks, but look at the number of passes in the final third - United played braver football

A lower possession percentage as a consequence of taking more risks, but look at the number of passes in the final third – United played braver football

There are plenty of people talking about “the penny dropping” with Van Gaal after this game. This is nonsense; if the penny has dropped with anyone it is the players who perhaps are finally adjusting to his methods and requirements. Let’s hope they have got it now and can execute it again in the matches to come. There will be stiffer tests than this, but this was a step in the right direction.