OPENING LINEUPS & FORMATION
Manchester United once again played in a 4-4-2 shape. David de Gea made his Old Trafford debut in goal. In front of him, Phil Jones and Jonny Evans deputised at center-back for the injured Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand. Patrice Evra returned to the lineup and with the captain's armband at left-back and Chris Smalling was deployed at right-back. In the center of the park, Anderson and Tom Cleverley were the duo and both played a box-to-box role. Ashley Young was the wide left player and Nani was on the opposite right flank. Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck were the duo up front.
Tottenham Hotspur played in a 4-4-2 shape as well, but they may have intended to play a bit more 4-4-1-1. Brad Friedel was in goal and his center-back pairing was Michael Dawson and Younes Kaboul. Kyle Walker was deployed at right-back and Benoit Assou-Ekotto was the left-back. Options were limited for manager Harry Redknapp in the middle - he was forced to choose Niko Kranjcar, who is not a central-midfielder, and the youngster Jake Livermore. Out wide, Gareth Bale was on the left and Aaron Lennon on the right. Up front, Jermaine Defoe was the striker and Rafael Van der Vaart played withdrawn from him.
An Open Affair
It could be argued that a contest of football simply comes down to time and space. With neither side aggressively pressing nor playing a high line in defense, there was plenty of open space on the pitch - particularly with each side playing with only three bands in their general shapes. During last season's run-in, it was Rooney that often dropped deep, both when United were in and out possession in their 4-4-1-1 shape. This allowed him to operate between the lines when United were attacking and also provided four bands of defense when out of possession. For Spurs, Van der Vaart plays a similar role, although he is not nearly as industrious in defense. In Monday night's match at Old Trafford, both came deep at times for the ball, but not as often nor as deep as they typically do - and especially not when their side's lost possession. This left plenty of space for the central midfield to operate in for both sides.
It was a typical sight to see Anderson, Cleverley, Kranjcar, and Livermore receive the ball deep from their defenders, turn and look up the pitch, and notice that there was plenty of time and space - neither duo were being pressed in their own half of the pitch. Anderson used this opportunity to make many driving runs forward while dribbling with the ball while Cleverley played quick and controlled passes. As this chalkboard below displays, Clevlerley's distribution was either receiving the ball deep from a defender and quickly moving the ball around or it was surging forward into the attack in an off the ball movement and then linking with the front four attackers - there was not much in between for him. In contrast, Anderson's distribution was more staggered vertically because of his willingness to carry the ball forward while dribbling. Both were brilliant at times throughout the match.
While Kranjcar and Livermore were tidy in their distribution (48/59 -- 81% and 36/41 -- 88%, respectively), neither were incisive nor willing to get forward with delayed runs in the final attacking third. With Kranjcar playing out of position, and with Livermore clearly playing a conservative role, the creative responsibility was left to Spurs' attacking four (more on this later). While Ando and Cleverley had similar responsibility, they perhaps had a better understanding with their teammates and their system - each intelligently made surging runs forward at times into the the attack. This was evident on Ando's goal late in the 2nd half and Cleverley's near goal from a delayed run forward that forced a brilliant save by Friedel early in the 1st half. While not spectacular, United's duo in the center won their battle and for two consecutive weeks, they were very solid.
The front four
Both United and Spurs put their creative intent on their wingers and their playmaker playing between the lines. While it could be argued that this contest was relatively even for the first hour of the match, and that both sides were playing fast and fluid football at times, United were always more likely for the breakthrough because of their interchangeability.
While Lennon, and especially Bale, are very dangerous attackers on their day, both are direct and do not provide much versatility. With Luka Modric unavailable due to a reported injury (or on strike to force a transfer), both wingers and Van der Vaart were without a controlling maestro in the middle - one that dictates the tempo of matches and sets the pattern for his attackers. This simplicity in attack made Spurs predictable in the final third of attack and easier for United to minimize legitimate goalscoring chances. Van der Vaart in particular, took two futile 40 yard attempts within a three minute span. Defoe failed as a lead striker and perhaps the more physical Roman Pavlyuchenko would have provided a better option with such direct and predictable play - especially with the doubts of de Gea's command in the box at this early stage of his United career.
In contrast, United were fast and fluid in their front four for stretches in the match, just as they were last week versus West Brom. The movement of Rooney and Welbeck, both deep and to the wide areas, was once again excellent and provided space for midfield runners through the middle. As mentioned earlier, this helped create the fluidity that provided the goalscoring chances for Ando and Cleverley with delayed runs from the midfield. It also provided space for Young and Nani to cut into as well from their initial wide positions. Once again, the versatility of Young and Nani allowed themto comfortably interchange flanks during the match. Despite possession and shots (on goal) being relatively even between the two sides for the initial hour, United were creating the more genuine goalscoring chances - this was evident by the numerous brilliant saves from Friedel. To a supporter from either side, or to a neutral, it was likely not too surprising to see United capture the opening goal.
Smalling vs Bale
Prior to the match, I was a bit concerned by the task at hand for Smalling. I felt that more pace (e.g. Fabio) was needed versus the electric Bale. However, as Phil Neville showed last season for Everton FC, perhaps physicality and adequate awareness in cover is the way to defend against Bale. Smalling limited his runs forward and essentially tracked Bale at all times. When the Welshman did receive, Smalling was quick to close him down with physicality and make him operate in tight spaces. When Bale did slip through at times and when he attempted to gallop down the touchline, Jones was often there to provide adequate cover. This chalkboard below shows Smalling's excellence in tackle and Bale's limited effectiveness near goal.
The dominant deputy duo of Jones & Evans
While United earned three valuable points away from Old Trafford last week, the victory came at a price as the duo of Vidic and Ferdinand were both injured - the two have arguably been the best center-back pairing in the world during the past half-decade. However, United have tremendous depth at center-back and the young duo of Evans and Jones got an opportunity on Monday night, the latter in his Old Trafford debut. The partnership looks promising.
The 19-year-old Jones, who is also quite comfortable as a holding midfielder, was adventurous throughout the evening. He often quickly ignited attacks from the back, something that Ferdinand does very well also, while also surging forward for selective runs. While adequate defensively, which included thundering headed clearances and brave tackling in the box, Jones was very incisive with his distribution and joined the attack a fair amount for a center-back. In comparison, Evans was steady with his positioning and calmly made the simple pass when in possession. It was a complimentary and effective partnership.
Evans had a difficult start to the season last year and because of that, he has has fallen out of favor with some supporters. Others are merely critical and not fully trusting. Nonetheless, his 46% aerial dual success rate from the last Premier League campaign is certainly tangible evidence to question his competency in the air. Versus Spurs though, Evans had a dominant night in defense, including in the air. He won five aerial duels out of an attempted six. It was a brilliant home debut for Jones and Evans put in a stellar performance that can silence his critics for a night.
For the better part of an hour, this match was relatively even and United looked unconvincing. I doubt any United supporter panicked though - Manchester United always score. The Reds put in a brilliant shift for the final half hour and the 3-0 scoreline felt deserved when the final whistle was blown. Redknapp made some positive substitutions when his side went down a goal, but it merely opened up his midfield and defense and United dutifully took advantage. The United side that started tonight had an average age of 23. The youth provided an exciting and up tempo attack. Two matches, six points. The Reds are taking care of business thus far. Next up, a reeling Arsenal FC side that has many selection problems for Sunday.