On late Sunday afternoon, if the weather gods permit it, Manchester United will be in north London to take on Tottenham Hotspur for a Premier League tie. During the swashbuckling September reverse fixture at Old Trafford, the away side dominated early and went 2-0 up after first-half efforts from Jan Vertonghen (which deflected off of Jonny Evans) and Gareth Bale. Soon after half-time, chaos ensued during a three-minute span: Nani pulled a goal back for the home side, Clint Dempsey struck for the third Spurs goal, and Shinji Kagawa then sublimely finished (gif from the wonderful Beautifully Red) to again pull United back within a goal. Miraculously, this 2-3 scoreline held as United could not find an equaliser, despite their second-half dominance. It was Andre Villas-Boas' most prominent win as a manager in England. Tottenham seek their first league double over United since the 1989-90 season.
Form Guide: United enter the weekend top of the league table and seven points clear of nearest title-contending rival Manchester City. Thus far, the Red Devils have accumulated 55 points from 22 matches. They've gone unbeaten in their past 12 domestic contests -- with only two of those being draws -- and Spanish giants Real Madrid await them in February for a two-legged UEFA Champions League tie.
Team News: Jonny Evans and Darren Fletcher have been ruled out while Nemanja Vidic (concussion) and Ashley Young (knee) are doubts. (Full Team News Report)
Form Guide: Spurs currently sit 4th in the table with 40 points from 22 matches. Villas-Boas' side are on a run of good form as they've only been defeated once in their past 10 domestic matches. Their most recent result was a 0-0 draw at Queens Park Rangers last weekend.
Team News: Sandro, William Gallas, and Younes Kaboul are all expected to be out due to injury. Emmannuel Adebayor is unavailable as well due to being away at the African Cup of Nations with Togo.
United: David de Gea is expected to be in goal but manager Sir Alex Ferguson was (unfairly?) critical of the young goalkeeper after he parried a Steven Gerrard shot into the path of Daniel Sturridge last weekend. The Spaniard has been benched for lesser offenses so Anders Lindegaard may be in contention to start. In central-defense, any two of Vidic (if fit), Rio Ferdinand, Chris Smalling, and Phil Jones are possible. Patrice Evra is certain to start at left-back while Rafael is expected at right-back.
Michael Carrick will start in midfield and he'll probably be partnered by Tom Cleverley. Anderson, Paul Scholes, and Ryan Giggs seem more likely to be available as substitutes. Out wide to the right, despite his poor form as of late, Antonio Valencia is anticipated. On the left, any of Young (if fit), Kagawa, Giggs, Nani, or Danny Welbeck are possible. Up front, Robin van Persie is a lock to feature and he'll be partnered by either Kagawa, Welbeck, Wayne Rooney, or Javier Hernandez (Chicharito).
Spurs: Hugo Lloris has established himself as the Spurs No.1 over Brad Friedel so there's no reason to think the Frenchman won't be between the posts at White Hart Lane. The center-back duo is expected to be Vertonghen and Michael Dawson but Steven Caulker may be in contention. Kyle Walker is certain at right-back and Kyle Naughton is expected at left-back.
In midfield, Scott Parker is anticipated to step in for the injured Sandro and he'll be partnered by Moussa Dembele in the center of the park. Out wide, Bale will be on the left while Aaron Lennon will be the right -- look for the two wingers to possibly switch flanks at some point in the match.
With Adebayor in South Africa, Villas-Boas is likely to steer away from his recent 4-4-2. Dempsey will probably play in support of Jermaine Defoe but Gylfi Sigurdsson is also possible for the central-attacking-midfield role.
* For the United projected lineup, the players who are very likely to start are capitalized while the players less certain to are in lower-case letters.
* How have Spurs changed since the reverse fixture?: With FC Porto and Chelsea, Villas-Boas had his sides actively press, move fluidly in midfield and attack, and play with a high-line in a 4-3-3 shape. It worked gloriously at one place and not so much at the other. At Tottenham though, he's shown a willingness to vary his tactics. Initially, the Portuguese manager had his new side in a 4-2-3-1 shape. In midfield, Sandro and Dembele nominally had deeper roles while either Dempsey or Sigurdsson played in support of a lead striker. The former two have had strong seasons thus far but the latter two have failed to be consistent and have frustrated with their unimaginative passing. Nonetheless, the trio of Sandro, Dembele, and Dempsey, in combination with the likes of Vertonghen, Bale, and Defoe, caused United all sorts of problems with their directness and fluidity in September.
Spurs pressed well at Old Trafford and when the ball was won, their dribbling and movement took full advantage of United's static, vulnerable midfield. Defoe made active diagonal runs that continually dragged defenders out of position and the likes of Bale, Vertonghen, and Dembele continually blew by their markers to exploit that vacated space. Vertonghen and Bale created the first two Tottenham goals this way. The combination of Carrick and Scholes was not enough to combat the mobility of the Spurs midfield while Nani's failure that day to track Vertonghen were the main reasons for United's horrid first-half.
Since that match, Spurs have changed slightly. The ineffectiveness of Dempsey and Sigurdsson has led Villas-Boas to pair Defoe and Adebayor together in a 4-4-2. In addition, Sandro's positioning is stationed deeper while Dembele is the one with the freedom to get forward -- there is less fluidity between the duo in this new (-ish) system. On Sunday though, expect further changes.
Sandro is out now for the season after being injured last weekend and Adebayor is on Togo duty. For the most part, Parker is a like-for-like replacement but Sandro's impressive form this season will be difficult to replicate. Dempsey or Sigurdsson will deputise for Adebayor so Spurs will probably be in a 4-2-3-1ish shape on Sunday.
In midfield, Parker is less likely to play as strict of a holding-role as Sandro so a bit more space may open up for United between the Spurs lines in this game -- this would be welcome by the likes of Kagawa and Rooney. Look for more diagonal runs by Defoe to clear out central-defenders so the likes of Bale and Lennon -- two wingers who like to attack towards goal from an initial wide position -- can exploit that space. Dembele will look to take on his counterparts as well to get forward into attack. Spurs don't have a creative passer in their side so movement and the ability of their attackers to take on players will be the key to their incisiveness. This way of attacking worked brilliantly for them in the reverse fixture.
* Proactive and pressing or reactive and counterattacking from United?: Away to Spurs these days is undoubtedly a challenging fixture so I suppose this classifies as a 'big game'. Will United then, be proactive and press as they did last weekend against Liverpool or will they use the 4-4-1-1 counterattacking system that worked so well away to both City and Chelsea?
United's strikers, wingers, and central-midfielders pressed Liverpool very effectively high up the pitch. Brendan Rodgers' side is possession-based and comfortable on the ball so that made it even more impressive that they were disjointed by the pressure. Against Spurs though, this could be a dangerous tactic because they are able to move vertically so quickly. In the reverse fixture, after United went down so early after the Evans' own-goal, they began to actively press high up the pitch. The initial break for Bale scoring Tottenham's second goal occurred because United provided so little resistance to their dribbling and pace. This is the danger Ferguson's side faces if they decide to actively play high up the pitch. An open game is likely to result.
It may be more prudent for the Red Devils sit a bit deeper and hit Tottenham on the counter. As previously mentioned, Spurs lack a creative player in midfield or attack that can unlock an organized side with technical wizardry. This was quite evident last weekend when they had difficulties breaking down a deep-defending QPR side (Julio Cesar was tremendous in goal for Rangers though).
When Spurs are in possession, they'd be forced to win individual match-ups and this would be more difficult to accomplish in tighter spaces. When United counter, they can test Parker and see if his possible rustiness and tendency to be rash in tackle will be problematic when he tries to break up play. In addition, right-back Walker is prone to being caught out and the space behind him would be an obvious outlet for counterattacks as any of Kagawa, Welbeck, or Nani (or Young if fit) would be able to thrive by running onto the ball played into that space.
The main drawback for a counterattacking side, of course, is that United can't allow the first goal -- especially early in the match. Fortunately for United, they've typically scored first whenever they've used this strategy. That would be vital again if they took this approach.
* United's Dembele problem: The two Premier League central-midfielders that have arguably caused United the most trouble in the past few seasons are Dembele and Yaya Toure. It's the former's pace and trickiness on the ball that allows him burst past United's midfield while it's Toure's driving power that allows him to go through like a hot knife through butter. Just this season alone, the Belgian has had 13 combined successful dribbles in two matches against the Red Devils (once for Spurs and once for Fulham). Ferguson must address this Dembele problem.
At City, and for the first time in a few seasons, the energetic combination of Cleverley and Rooney helped keep the Ivorian relatively quiet. Ferguson was keen to use the more mobile Cleverley next to Carrick rather than the more static Scholes. Dembele is probably going to play a bit higher than Toure did during the derby so a secondary striker or a No.10 -- whether that be a Rooney, Kagawa, Welbeck, or somebody else -- won't be in the same vicinity often enough to help out. Thus, Dembele's natural foil is likely to be just either Carrick or Cleverley.
When partnered with Sandro, Dembele typically plays left-of-center and presumably, he'll be positioned in the same spot on Sunday while partnered with Parker. Carrick is usually right-of-center while Cleverley is left-of-center, thus, it's Carrick that is likely to be Dembele's more natural foil. Ferguson, though, could switch Cleverley and Carrick so that the former's mobility can be tested to see if he's a better match-up against the Belgian. Carrick's ability to press is pretty good (ask Joe Allen) but he's vulnerable when an active or powerful counterpart is coming at him. If Parker is high enough, Carrick can pressure him and if he sits deep, he's not good enough on the ball to consistently spray dangerous passes from deep. Cleverley appears both more comfortable left-of-center but if he's willing to switch sides, his energy may be needed to combat a United nemesis.
KO: 4:00pm GMT, 11:00am EST | White Hart Lane
Live TV: Sky Sports 1 (U.K.), FOX Soccer (U.S.)
Referee: Chris Foy
Odds: Tottenham Hotspur 2/1, Draw 12/5, Manchester United 13/10