OPENING LINEUPS AND FORMATIONS
Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson deployed a mostly expected side in a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1ish shape. The in-form David de Gea was the goalkeeper while Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans were the center-back pairing. Patrice Evra wore the captain's armband at left-back while Phil Jones was selected over Rafael at right-back. Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick sat deep in the center of the park. In attack, the front four were fluid in their movements -- Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck often came deep to pick up the ball while Ashley Young and Nani varied their movements from their wide positions.
Tottenham Hotspur manager Harry Redknapp deployed his side in a lopsided 4-4-2 shape. In defense, the expected back four and Spurs No. 1 received starts -- Kyle Walker, Younes Kaboul, Ledley King (captain), Benoit Assou-Ekotto; and Brad Friedel. With Scott Parker serving a suspension during this match, it was Sandro and Jake Livermore that were in the center of the park. With Gareth Bale unavailable due to injury, Luka Modric was moved out to the left-side of midfield while Aaron Lennon was tasked as the wide attacking player on the right. Louis Saha and Emmanuel Adebayor formed a partnership up front.
Sandro and Livermore effectively pressure their counterparts
Since the return of Scholes in January, United has controlled nearly every match that they've been involved in because of the maestro's vision, superb range of passing, and intelligent football brain. Despite being 37-years-old, he is still world-class on his day in his current role as a regista. Therefore, it is was an astute tactical move by Redknapp to use the athletic duo of Sandro and Livermore to apply constant pressure on Scholes and Carrick. The latter struggles at times against this approach while Scholes -- who typically deals better with it due to his tremendous close control -- also struggled as well on Sunday. Scholes' 44 touches and 37 passes attempted in 61+ minutes on the pitch was well below his typical rates.
The ultimate result of all of this was the United duo failing to dictate a game together for the first time since Scholesy's return. This pressure made it difficult for United to get out of their own half because their deep-lying players lacked time on the ball to seek out forward passes. When Sandro and Livermore couldn't quite get there to close down their counterparts, they aggressively sought to cut out passing lanes. It appeared though the reason United were pushed back was compounded by Fergie's own conservative tactics:
"In the first period we tried to drop off and bring them onto us a bit but it didn't work."
- Ferguson | Source: MUTV
Modric continually tucks inside
It was a slight surprise to see Spurs' own regista -- Modric -- deployed out wide. However, the use of the energetic and combative duo of Sandro and Livermore in the center freed up the Croatian playmaker to scout open inward spaces to drift into from his initial wide position. With Adebayor continually drifting out wide to the left as well, these unfamiliar movements caused confusion for the away side in their defensive responsibilities -- particularly Jones in the first half.
When Adebayor split outside -- Evans smartly didn't allow himself to get dragged out of position very often by foolishly following him -- and when Modric tucked inside, Jones was often hesitant in his decision-making. When Jones let Modric go, this often resulted in a 3 v 2 in the middle for Spurs -- and thus, this also helps explain their dominance in possession. This was another big factor why Spurs were able to push United back. With Livermore and Sandro freeing up Modric, the playmaker was free to dictate the game at times. His 6 key passes (chances created) and superb 6/10 successful crosses is evident of his influence. This was a clever tactic by Redknapp that United were unprepared to deal with. Jones showed a good work-rate and desire with his running around but the reason he was involved in so many physical challenges was because of his hesitant decision-making -- he was always at high-risk to pick up a second booking in this match.
United find two outlets for relief
With the Sandro/Livermore duo actively pressing high up the pitch and with Modric constantly drifting inside, there were two constant outlets to relieve the pressure that Spurs were applying: (1) Between the lines as the gap between Sandro/Livermore and their back four was large. (2) Out wide to Jones who was often free near the touchline and in a position to receive passes that were laterally swung out to him.
(1) For about the first hour or so, Sandro and Livermore were impressive with their relentless pressing. However, with neither King nor Kaboul playing high so that they could compact the lines -- probably because of the concern of King being vulnerable on the turn due to his limited pace when balls are played in behind him -- there was acres of space for Rooney and Welbeck to drop into and also for Young and Nani to drift inside into (more on Young's movement later). As the match wore on in the first half, both strikers began to drop into this space to receive in. From here, they had time to turn and make driving runs -- this good movement from United's striker duo was arguably when United looked most dangerous in the first half. However, Rooney's first-touch was poor during this match and a final product was lacking from both strikers.
(2) Jones was constantly free to receive passes when United won the ball back in their own half of the pitch. This was always the obvious risk for Spurs with Modric constantly drifting inside -- despite the stamina of his that Fergie praised earlier this week. The player with the most touches on the ball for United was Carrick with 86 (hardly a surprise) but the player who was a close second was Jones with 81. The next closest player had 65 touches. This does well to quantitatively show how constant this Jones outlet was. Unfortunately, he didn't take advantage enough as he failed to play accurate passes or make sound decisions when he got forward. Perhaps Rafael would have offered a better choice in this match at right-back. Jones has had a very good debut season at United but his current form -- after recently recovering from injury -- hasn't quite matched his superb form from the season's first half.
United's fluid front four
The United front four and their fluid movement at White Hart Lane was reminiscent of their early-season ways. As previously mentioned, Rooney and Welbeck continually dropped deep and both acted sort of like 'false-nines' (strikers that drop deep and link play with the midfield). Nani, and in particular Young, varied their movements well and continually took up good positions. The deep movements from the strikers allowed them to interchange with the wide attackers -- neither of which are traditional wingers as each prefers to drift in the space between the lines in search of space. This allows for them to exchange quick one-touch passes with each other in a dangerous part of the pitch and it also can create vacuums for midfield runners.
In this match, Nani was inconsistent with both his final product and decision-making. With much of United's attacking build-up being on the right-side due to Jones' constant freedom to receive, it perhaps would have made sense for Young and Nani to have switched sides. Both prefer to play on the flanks that they were deployed on but both are versatile to play on either side. Even when Young struggles to influence a match due on days when he is supplying a poor final product, his movement is generally always very clever. His knack for taking up intelligent positions is perhaps the most underrated aspect of his game -- although obviously Fergie rates him. A clear example is the space he found himself in prior to his spectacular second goal.
Poor defending from Spurs
United took their limited chances well while Spurs failed to capitalize on the plethora of theirs. This ultimately is what decided the match. But it is worth noting how Spurs made defensive mistakes on each of the three goals that they conceded.
* Goal 1: I'm not privy to the specifics of Spurs' methods on defending set-pieces -- quite frankly, I came away from watching their most recent matches wondering if they have a plan at all. On this goal, Rooney simply slipped Walker and our talisman used good technique to clinically finish from a terrific ball whipped in from Young on a corner.
* Goal 2: Poor defending from both Modric and Walker allowed for this goal. On Jones' throw-in on the right touchline, Assou-Ekotto was marking Welbeck while Modric was responsible for Nani. The Portuguese winner got to the byline after getting in behind Modric during the throw-in and cut the ball back across the goal. A poor clearance by Walker allowed for Young's superb volley.
* Goal 3: The build-up was a long one after Spurs cleared a United corner. Modric and Lennon had briefly switched flanks at times in this match so it's uncertain who was tasked at being on the right-flank at that moment. But whoever that player was supposed to be, he was the key player at fault for Young's brilliant curler. After this long build-up, Evra and Young had a 2 v 1 situation on the left flank because there was no right-sided midfielder to help Walker. Young made an intelligent run inside between the lines and Walker was hesitant on who to track and committed to neither. Young received and no one was near enough to close him down before he could fire home for his brace.
Ferdinand, Evans, and de Gea clean up
Spurs' right side of attack was more direct with the pacey Lennon and Walker. The former got the best of Evra -- as have a lot of right-sided attackers this season -- and he even made an impressive surging run through the middle in the first half that was broken up by Evans. This sort of epitomized Lennon on the day. He was threatening with his pace and with his ability to get by defenders (4 successful dribbles) but his final product and decision-making was poor. He did well to attempt six crosses -- but none of them found a teammate.
United's full-backs may not have impressed but their center-backs and goalkeeper surely did. Evans was once again superb in his positioning as he did well to deal with the movement of Adebayor and Saha. He also bravely had 20 clearances (14 successful). Ferdinand made fantastic -- and perhaps goal-saving -- tackles and he also provided 17 clearances (8 successful). de Gea commanded his box decently well and he obviously had some superb saves. United were overrun in midfield and their full-backs looked vulnerable -- but the duo of Ferdinand/Evans and the tremendous de Gea did well to clean up the mess. Well, until Ryan Giggs decided to play a David Silva like pass for Jermaine Defoe on his goal...
Spurs controlled the match while United struggled to compete. However, Spurs failed to be clinical enough with their chances and they had costly defensive errors. In contrast, United took their chances well and they defended well in their own box. 'Arry's tactics were fine and the unavailability of Bale and Parker even allowed him to spring a surprise on his counterpart. Goals decide games though. Getting goals when not playing well in 'massive games' also decide title races. Not a tremendous performance, but it was a tremendous result. We're well-positioned for the run-in.