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MATCH PREVIEW: Tottenham vs Manchester United

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On Sunday, White Hart Lane will be the setting for when Barclays Premier League leader Manchester United clash with title-contending hopeful Tottenham Hotspur. The two Champions League sides last squared off on October 30, 2010 at Old Trafford when United prevailed with a 2-0 victory. A controversial late goal sealed the win for United, as confusion ensued when Spurs goalkeeper Gomes placed a ball on the ground that he assumed to be a dead ball. An opportunistic Nani slotted the ball into the goal and Spurs were livid with referee Mark Clattenburg, as the goal essentially clinched victory for United. 

Spurs come into the match sitting 4th in the table and 8 points behind United, while United have a game in hand. Manager Harry Redknapp undoubtedly sees this game as an opportunity to move up the table, and to propel themselves into the thick of the Premier League title chase. It has been 19 straight league matches where the London side have failed to defeat the visitors from Manchester. 'Arry undoubtedly must see this as Spurs best opportunity during this drought to come away with a victory. Spurs have introduced themselves to the upper tier of English football, and this match provides a chance to make a move towards the very top. 

I have the previous match from October stored on my DVR so I was able to re-watch most of the match this week. Since this is only a preview, I'll try my best to sum up the tactics briefly and use that to apply some insight for the upcoming match.

 

In the previous encounter, Tottenham employed a '4-4-1-1' formation for most of the match. This is a very typical formation for Spurs. Rafael Van der Vaart played in 'the hole', Robbie Keane was mostly alone upfront, Jermaine Jenas played deeper than Luka Modric in the middle, but Jenas isn't really a true holding player. It looked something like this... 

------------------------------ Keane ------------------

-------------- van der Vaart ---------------------------

---Bale ---------- Modric ----Jenas ----Lennon--

- (Assou-Ekotto)- Kaboul - Gallas -- Hutton-

---------------------Gomes--------------------

 

United unveiled a '4-4-2' during the match. Dimitar Berbatov paired with Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez up top, Park Ji-Sung played very narrow on the left side (almost like a 3rd central midfielder), Michael Carrick played as a deep lying playmaker in front of the defense, Darren Fletcher in a box to box role, and Patrice Evra made overlapping runs when Park tucked in central. The general shape looked something like this.

-----------------Berbatov -- Chicharito--------------

---------------Park---------Fletcher----------Nani--- 

----Evra------------Carrick-----------------------------

-----------------Vidic-----Ferdinand------Rafael---

---------------------- van der Sar ---------------------

 

A few basic observation from that match...

* Entertaining and open game

* United looked to play much more narrow. Evra bombed forward at times to provide width in attack, but Rafael didn't as much because he clearly was concerned with Gareth Bale

* At times, van der Vaart caused trouble for United as they began to get overrun in the center of the pitch when he came deep into the midfield. Park began to creep more and more into the center of the pitch to help out. 

* I think Redknapp may have been better served starting Peter Crouch as they didn't seem to have much of an aerial threat when crosses were whipped in. Maybe Vidic scared off 'Arry, as Vida showed his physical prowess on his goal. 

 

What can we expect in the upcoming match?:

* Kevin McCauley, from SB Nation's Tottenham site provided some excellent insight about Spurs in a Q&A session for us. Go check it out if you already haven't... 

* Going off of Kevin's lineup guess (same formation, and similar lineup to previous match), one might infer that Spurs will again look to attack from the flanks and whip in crosses. Jermaine Defoe would certainly be an upgrade over Keane as the lone striker, but I wonder if Crouch might be the better choice. It feels like I've seen countless highlights this year where van der Vaart gets on the end of of a Crouch knock-down and poaches a goal. It's been a lethal combination. However, Redknapp may feel that United's center-backs can neutralize this, specifically the beast that is Vidic. Also, Jermain Defoe is coming off a brace vs Charlton in their previous FA Cup match. 

* Sir Alex Ferguson tends to go with his '4-3-3/4-5-1'  hybrid formation in away matches, especially so in big matches like this. However, it wouldn't shock me if Fergie played with 2 frontman, since Rooney has a tendency to drift deep and link up play when he partners Berbatov...  and he's both willing and capable in defending. This might be even more tempting if Fergie anticipates Jenas starting alongside Modric in the middle, since Jenas isn't a true ball-winner. If that concerns Redknapp, he may elect to go with Wilson Palacios instead (which may or may not solve that issue). 

Rooney appears to be fit for the match. Van der Sar is questionable because of the flu he's been battling, but Tomasz Kuszczak has filled in adequately as of late. Paul Scholes likely is still out. Park Ji-Sung is still off destroying the rest of Asia in Qatar. 

* I don't expect Rafael to get forward as much this game as he typically does, because he'll likely be concerned with Bale. I still suspect Evra gets chances to get forward, but it'll be interesting to see how he decides to deal with Aaron Lennon (or van der Vaart possibly).

* My guess at a lineup is the '4-3-3/4-5-1' hybrid (Fergie never makes this easy)....

 

------------------------Rooney ----------------------

------------------Giggs---------------------Nani----

----------------Anderson--Fletcher----------------

---Evra----------------Carrick-----------------------

----------------Vidic-----Ferdinand---Rafael----

------------------------ van der Sar -----------------

 

 

Anyway, it's a big match and United has a real shot at pounding a nail into the coffin of Tottenham's title hopes. I anticipate a thriller. I'm not a big fan of the prediction game but I'll provide one anyway. The bookies have this game as a toss-up, as odds are essentially the same for either side to win or for a draw. Because of Spurs tendency to cough up goals, I'll go with a high scoring affair... 2-2 draw.