After a blistering and frenetic start to the match at White Hart Lane, a stalemate resulted as 10-man Manchester United regained the top spot of the Barclays Premier League after a 0-0 draw with Tottenham Hotspur. With 16 minutes remaining, United right-back Rafael was sent off after receiving his second yellow card of the match. Down to 10 men, United defended valiantly to hold on for a result and they now remain unbeaten through 21 league matches. Despite most of the game being free-flowing and full of flair, neither side could come up with enough creativity in the final attacking third to unlock the solid defense of each side.
* Opening lineups and tactics:
Manchester United went '4-4-2', as Sir Alex Ferguson elected to go with 2 frontmen with Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov paired up top. As of late, when Rooney pairs up with Berbatov, Rooney drops deep and links play. He didn't do that as nearly as often versus Spurs as he stayed higher up the pitch. Often in away matches, Fergie elects to go with a narrow '4-5-1/4-3-3' hybrid formation and will look to attack on the counter. However, Fergie unveiling this lineup and formation hinted that he was targeting a full 3 points for United, and not just an away match draw. Nani from his wide right position in the midfield, played high up the pitch as he normally does but he appeared to be tracking back a bit more than usual to assist Rafael with his handling of Gareth Bale. Ryan Giggs, from his position out wide left, continually drifted to the center of the pitch. At times, Giggs almost was a 3rd central midfielder. Darren Fletcher had his hands full with Luka Modric in the center of the pitch, and he often drifted right to double up on Bale. Michael Carrick sat a bit deeper and played his usual role as a deep lying playmaker, right in front of his defense. Patrice Evra didn't bomb forward nearly as much as he usually does. However, Rafael played much higher up the pitch and often forced Bale to track back.
Tottenham came out in their '4-4-1-1' formation. Peter Crouch was the lone striker up top, with Rafael van der Vaart behind him in 'the hole.' Luka Modric played in a box to box role in central midfield, while his partner Wilson Palacios played as the holding midfielder. Aaron Lennon and Bale provided width in the attack and they were pushing high up the pitch when Spurs were in possession. Alan Hutton took advantage of the acres of space he was given and pushed forward into the attack on the right side. Benoit Assou-Ekotto played deeper, as he was clearly worried about his defensive responsibilities with Nani.
More after the jump...
* A frenetic start to the match. Spurs were attempting to win possession in the middle of the pitch, and then send the ball out wide to either Bale or Lennon. They then were to whip in crosses and target Crouch. However, United center-back Vidic had Crouch in his pocket. Vidic completely nullified the aerial threat of Crouch, and the Spurs target-man was able to provide little else.
* With van der Vaart drifting back towards the midfield, Spurs were beginning to overrun United in the center of the pitch while often having a 3 vs 2 advantage there. Giggs began to drift centrally, and at times almost provided United with a 3rd central midfielder. However, Spurs were winning the battle in this part of the field no matter the numbers, and Modric was having a brilliant match. In one particular sequence, Modric won the ball from Fletcher, sent the ball out wide to Alan Hutton who sent in a low cross to Crouch, and Crouch narrowly missed his shot wide of the goal.
* Hutton was really bombing forward, as there was acres of space for him to do so from his right back position. With Giggs tucked in so much centrally, and Evra not getting forward often because of his tracking of Lennon, Hutton had space and time on the ball when he got it.
* United were having difficulties getting in sync, and this is why Nani and Berbatov were so quiet. This is all stemmed from losing the battle in the center of the pitch. Play wasn't being linked up, and even Rooney wasn't dropping deep as he often does to create. However, Berbatov did create a few chances for Rooney as he was able to threaten Spurs goalkeeper Gomes on a few occasions. Fergie undoubtedly knew this, as I'll get to in a bit in discussing the 2nd half.
* The Bale vs Rafael matchup was fascinating. In their previous encounter, Rafael stayed back in defense and didn't get forward as often in the attack. This led to success. However, in yesterday's match at White Hart Lane, Rafael continually was pushing forward and forcing Bale to track back and defend. This resulted in quite a bit of running for Rafael, and a few times getting caught out of position without adequate cover, especially since Fletcher was struggling with Modric. This may be why Rafael was caught a few times in rash challenges.
* Wilson Palacios was the holding player, but he isn't nearly as effective as Tom Huddlestone is. Spurs will be much better off when Huddlestone returns to partner with the creative Modric in the center of the pitch.
* Both teams came out in the 2nd half without any changes. However, it was becoming more evident that United were losing control of the match in the center of the pitch. There was no creativity in the United attack because there wasn't much link up play. Fergie brought on Anderson in the 61st minute to replace an ineffective Nani. This resulted in a tactics switch, as United went to their '4-3-3/4-5-1' hybrid. Fergie could also be seen instructing his players to narrow their shape.
* At this point, I think Fergie was thinking 2 things: (1) If we continue to get killed in the center of the pitch, its only a matter of time before Spurs score. (2) If I can nullify that advantage by staying compact and narrow, we might be able to hit them on the counter. But I think he was fine at this point of the match settling for a draw.
* Berbatov led the attacking line in the center, Rooney became an attacking right midfielder, and Giggs became the attacking left midfielder. And now there was 3 central midfielders in Carrick, Anderson, and Fletcher. Carrick stayed deeper. No changes for Spurs at this point of the match so the teams looked something like this at around the 61 minute mark...
* After Fergie made this change, the match was a stalemate for the next 15-20 minutes. Although Spurs were able to get Lennon and Bale to send in crosses, neither was particularly accurate and Vidic continued to destroy Crouch. Again, it appeared Spurs had to try something different.
* The game changed completely in the 74th minute when Rafael was booked for his second yellow card, and thus sent off. United shifted to a '4-4-1' and Fletcher moved to occupy the right-back role that Rafael was playing. Chicharito came on for Berbatov in the 78th minute in a 'like for like' substitution, as he was coming on to provide fresh legs and energy as the lone man up top.
* Harry Redknapp made an aggressive and positive substitution by bringing on striker Jermain Defoe for defensive midfielder Palacios. Spurs shifted to a '4-4-2'. Spurs now had 2 central attacking midfielders in Modric and van der Vaart. Defoe partnered Crouch up top. Redknapp clearly thought 10-man United would be reeling and he was going all out for the match-winning goal. Here's how the sides looked after the 74th minute red card and the 78th minute substitutions...
* In the final 16 minutes, Spurs dominated as expected and United defended bravely. The United defending was superb, as every remaining player on the pitch refused to yield. Spurs were never able to get a shot on goal from open play, and a 10-man United side were able to escape with a draw.
* Man of the Match: Nemanja Vidic... The United skipper was simply dominant. One of the finer performances you will ever see from a center-back. Honorable mention to Luka Modric, he completely controlled this game from the center of the pitch.
* Oddly, Wayne Rooney has gone from being possibly overrated to now underrated. A very solid match for Wazza and he looked dangerous early on, and forced a good save from Gomes. As tactical changes were made in the match, Rooney again showed his hidden value.... his flexibility to play multiple roles. We all know that he can lead a line and score goals in bundles as he did last season. However, he can also play out wide as he did today as a right attacking midfielder. His willingness to play on the flanks, defend, and not get nearly as many goal chances is vital to United. Just a great unselfish effort by Wazza today.
* I can't figure out if Giggs keeps tucking in centrally out of instinct or because he's instructed to do so. At times, it works beautifully as he's able to provide another body in the central part of the pitch, and then use his brilliance as a creative playmaker. However, this works better when Evra is bombing forward from left-back and providing overlapping runs. With Evra staying deeper today and being much more selective in getting forward, Spurs right-back Hutton had all the space and time on the ball that he could ever want.
* In my opinion, Rafael's sending off was harsh. However, when he picked up his first yellow, the best option for him may have been to stay back and consume himself with his defensive abilities. The more a fullback gets caught out of position and is forced to race back, the more likely he's going to be making rash challenges and making himself vulnerable to a booking.
* Gareth Bale and Rafael van der Vaart really are worth all the hype to me. Fantastic players. Bale's acceleration is breathe-taking. In addition, Modric is an amazing player as well and he was the creative force in Spurs attack yesterday.
* The sooner Tom Huddlestone returns, the sooner Spurs will shore up their defense. Palacios, in his role as a holding midfielder, appears to be a weak-link in that lineup. I can't say that I'm impressed with Assou-Ekotto either, but he did have a nice match versus Nani. Furthermore, if Spurs were to add someone like Andy Carroll or Luis Suarez, they could possibly be the best team in England.
* Overall, I'm pleased with the draw, especially considering that we went down to 10 men. I'll always expect 3 points at Old Trafford, but I can live with a single point at White Hart Lane, Eastlands, or the Emirates... that way, they can't make up any ground on us. I love that Fergie went for 3 points today in the first hour of the match, I am fine with the tactical adjustments that he made based on the run of play.