MANCHESTER UNITED vs TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR
08.08.2015

The first game of the season and United entertained Spurs in an early kick-off. Unusually Van Gaal chose to reveal pre-match that an un-injured player, De Gea, would not play in view of all the interest in him from Real Madrid. He also revealed that Schweinsteiger and Rojo were not yet match-fit. That left four of the five summer signings available for selection, how many would the manager pick as United looked for a better start than last year?

PERSONNEL

First Team of the season: Romero, Darmian, Smalling Blind, Shaw, Carrick, Schneiderlin, Mata, Depay, Young and Rooney.

KEYPOINTS

  • This was a fairly disjointed performance, typical of early season when players are rusty and still looking to develop an understanding with new arrivals; but 3 points are 3 points.
  • Both teams pressed each other, and both teams struggled to cope and frequently gave the ball away in dangerous positions. Most chances came via a situation where teams lost possession in their own half as a consequence of an aggressive press.
  • When United were in possession at the back there was often too much space between Carrick and Schneiderlin, the pivots, and Rooney and Memphis further forward. The pivots were too deep and Memphis was too high.
  • Smalling often found himself ahead of Carrick and/or Schneiderlin as United played out from the back. He played well, as did Darmian on debut and Shaw. Romero did well despite being played into difficult situations by defenders. Blind looked less secure.
  • Are there enough goals in this team? This remains a concern.

FIRST HALF

Van Gaal selected Romero in place of De Gea and set United up in a rough 4-2-3-1 shape. Spurs had the same shape and both teams employed the same tactic from the outset. That is both teams employed a high line and both teams looked to press the opposition. This meant that both teams looked stronger when the opposition had the ball and struggled when they had the ball themselves. After the first five minutes Spurs looked slightly the more comfortable in possession simply because they moved the ball more quickly than United. United’s play in possession was more laboured.

The purpose of this high press for both sides, as is always the case is to try to win the ball back high up the pitch in the oppositions half. All the early chances in the match came from this scenario and unfortunately for United most of them went Spurs way, (notably a chance for Eriksen when he lobbed onto the roof of the net).In the first 12 minutes United lost the ball to Spurs aggressive press in dangerous areas leading to good opportunities for the visitors three times, (Mata lost the ball twice and Schneiderlin once).

1st half starting shape   1st half movement

Starting formations and United’s first half movement in possession; note how this created a hole in the middle of the pitch. This only applied as United started to work the ball out of their defensive third

When United had the ball the key problem was the space in the middle of the park between Carrick and Schneiderlin and Rooney and Memphis further forwards. Memphis pushed very high, almost as high as Rooney; perhaps this was a consequence of his pressing the opposition, or perhaps he was trying too hard to make an impression on debut.

Memphis chalkboard Rooney chalkboard

Memphis action areas, (right), and Rooney action areas, (left). Memphis was often as high as Rooney.

Further back Carrick and Schneiderlin both tended to drop deeper towards goal as we looked to build up play out of our own third. Our two centre-backs split and the full backs moved forwards, which encouraged the pivots to play the ball square. This helped Spurs to press the ball and pen United in the fullback areas. Effectively United surrendered control of the middle of the pitch and found themselves in trouble several times. United’s defenders put Romero in difficulty on more than one occasion and he exacerbated the problems by playing a short return pass to a defender close to his own area.

Sensing the need to overcome this problem Chris Smalling started to take the initiative and move confidently with the ball into the midfield areas rather than looking to predictably re-circulate the ball around at the back. This saw him often further forward than Scheiderlin and Carrick.

Smalling often found himself ahead of the pivots

Smalling often found himself ahead of the pivots

Then from nowhere United scored, or rather Spurs scored for them. That’s a bit unfair as it was a well worked move. As United again pressed high Dentelab misplaced a pass which was intercepted by Mata. He passed quickly to Memphis who push the ball instantly wide to Young. He had switched wings and played an early ball from the right across the back of the retreating Spurs defence into the path of Rooney. He set himself to shoot and took so long doing so that Walker nipped in and toe poked it home for him. Boom! 22 minutes played, 1-0.

The goal illustrated a key point. United moved the ball quickly in the build up with forward momentum. This made a difference. After the goal United had a good 15 minute spell when they did just this and looked far more accomplished for it. A quicker tempo and one and two touch football meant that United found it far easier to reach the Spurs half with the ball and once in the Spurs half they looked menacing. The fact they didn’t score again was probably a consequence of a team in early season with a number of recruits still getting to know each other.

SECOND HALF

Not a lot changed in the second half. After a bright start in the game Spurs had faded and never seemed to be able to rouse themselves. They seemed to be in second gear. It is reported that they had played two pre-season games in the week before the fixture, why? Both teams looked leggy but as the game wore on they looked more heavy legged than United. At the start of the match it was Spurs whose press had more snap, whilst United, who pressed as much lacked conviction in the tackle when they closed down. By the second half this also applied to Spurs.

On 60 minutes Van Gaal replaced Carrick with Schweinsteiger, (and so all United’s summer signing had made their debut in the game), and on 65 minutes Herrera replaced Memphis. Whilst this didn’t create a flurry of chances United now had a better shape. Schweinsteiger looked confident in possession and was more prepared to step forward into higher areas when United had the ball. He passed early and well. Herrera was his usual busy self and whilst he didn’t make a big obvious impression on the game he did drop deeper to help reconnect the spine of the United side.

United second half  150808142828-bastian-schweinsteiger-man-u-vs-spurs-super-169

United’s improved shape after substitutions and Scweinsteiger; assured, confident in possession and movement.

Another change in this period was the position of Mata. Mata has a natural tendency to come inside and lacks the pace to beat people in wide areas running with the ball. In the first half Rooney stayed central, Mata stayed wide on the right and Young wide on the left. Late in the game, perhaps as a consequence of his pre-existing understanding with Herrera he started to move inside more. Mata had a good second half both in attack and in defence and influenced the game to a far greater extent. The downside of his second half movement was that United’s attacking thrust on the right was reduced however.

Darmian made an impressive debut, but faded

Darmian made an impressive debut, but faded

Defence has not been Mata’s strength but on several occasions he dropped back to help Darmian who was visibly fading. Darmian had a good game, solid in defence and showing good signs of attacking endeavour and his fading towards the end can be put down to a need to get used to the pace of the premier league.  He was replaced by Valencia in the 81st minute.

Darmian chalkboard

It wasn’t just Darmian who faded, the whole team looked tired in the last 15 minutes and Spurs inevitably began to push forward. Fortunately Romero looked confident and completely lacking in nerves. He will need to work on his distribution and understanding with his defenders but he made a couple of good competent saves when United needed him.

CONCLUSION

This was a disjointed display. All United’s new players did fairly well but two issues sprang out.

Firstly the key to success this season will be the spine of the side. This means the midfield pivots co-ordinating their movement and staying in touch with each other and working with the number 10, (even if he has number 7 on his back). This didn’t quite work out in this game but is no doubt something United will work on in training in the coming weeks.

Match statistics - United shaded the majority of possession. Unusually Spurs combinations topped the pass combinations chart but the top combinations involved central defenders and the goalkeeper

Match statistics – United shaded the majority of possession. Unusually Spurs combinations topped the pass combinations chart but the top combinations involved central defenders and the goalkeeper

Where will the goals come from? This is the second issue. United didn’t have too many clear cut chances in the game. Rooney led the line here but was often isolated as a consequence of the gap behind him in the spine of the side. Again United will need to work on this but it is noticeably that whilst the back six are all tall payers now the front four lack height. Van Gaal is no doubt looking for speed and understanding to compensate for this, but there will be times when a bigger physical presence will be required.