Manchester United visited White Hart Lane to take on Tottenham Hotspur Football Club on Sunday afternoon in a much anticipated clash between the second and third place teams in the Premier League. Tottenham hasn’t managed a win against Manchester United in the previous 26 league meetings, and that streak is still alive, Manchester United came into this game 5 points behind Manchester City, after City beat Bolton 2-0 in a lackluster display the day before.
Harry Redknapp’s group has struggled over the last few weeks, with last week’s 5-2 loss to Arsenal having to be especially painful. But it wasn’t just the loss that hurt Tottenham, as Scott Parker picked up a red card in the dying minutes of that game so he was unable to play against United. Harry Redknapp got additional bad news as Rafael Van der Vaart (injury) and Gareth Bale (illness) were unable to play. This left Tottenham missing several important players in their midfield.
Manchester United started the game in their usual 4-4-1-1 formation that they’ve used for most of the season. With Anders Lindegaard still out injured, there was no question that David De Gea was going to get the start in net. With Bale out ill, Phil Jones got the start at right-back over Rafael. The first choice tandem of Jonny Evans and Rio Ferdinand got the start at center-back with Patrice Evra at left-back With Carrick and Scholes in the midfield, supported by Nani on the right wing and Ashley Young getting a start over Park Ji-Sung on the left wing. Danny Welbeck started up front, seeming to have taken hold of the spot and leaving Chicharito with only a bench spot recently. Wayne Rooney started behind Welbeck in his usual withdrawn role.
Tottenham Hotspur started the game in a 4-4-2 formation. Scott Parker missed the game as a result of a suspension and they also were also missing Van Der Vaart who has been out for several weeks with a knee injury and Gareth Bale, who missed the game with an illness. Tottenham had Brad Friedel in goal, making his 27th league start of the season. Tottenham had their first-choice starting lineup at the back, with Kyle Walker starting at right-back, Younes Kaboul and captain Ledley King at center-back, and Benoit Assou-Ekotto at left-back.
While they had their starting back four, they were missing some key players in midfield; Harry Redknapp needed to move around some key players. He moved Luka Modric out of his usual position in the center midfield, and put him on the left wing. In the center, he played Sandro and Jake Livermore. Aaron Lennon gets the start on the right side after returning from an injury that kept him on the bench against Arsenal. Up front, Redknapp started Emmanuel Adebayor and Louis Saha.
Manchester United struggled, as Tottenham managed to control 55% possession throughout the first half. Jake Livermore and Sandro did a good job at preventing Paul Scholes or Michael Carrick from getting any time on the ball. There were long stretches of time when the ball didn’t leave United’s half of the field, as they struggled with Tottenham’s pressure in the midfield. While Tottenham managed to control the ball, they had troubles getting the ball on the net. They were lacking that last pass in the final third to unlock United’s defense. Tottenham was really hurt by playing their best creative player out of position, on the left wing, and playing 2 defensive midfielders in his place. While Sandro and Jake Livermore did a great job at closing down on Carrick and Scholes whenever they had the ball, when Tottenham had the ball they weren’t able to contribute much in the way of offensive help. That left Saha and Adebayor at the front with no real service, and Adebayor showed no initiative in going back to collect the ball and move it forward. Saha was more willing to journey back to get the ball, but they still had problems getting in a good position to take effective shots. The only player who was really able to create offense for Tottenham was Aaron Lennon, who was able to use his speed to create some chances.
United’s defense was excellent during the first half, with the back pairing of Evans and Ferdinand completely shutting down any Tottenham attack near the box. Even Patrice Evra had a great defensive game, keeping Aaron Lennon at bay for the first half. However, Aaron Lennon made several dangerous attacks on United when he would periodically switch to the left wing and take on Phil Jones. Jones had a bad first half, first giving away a cheap foul to Aaron Lennon right on the edge of the penalty box. In the 37th minute, Aaron Lennon, again on the left side, ran past a weak tackle by Jones to the byline and crossed the ball into the middle where Saha shot the ball at an open net but hit Adebayor. The ball bounced off of Adebayor, back to Saha who was then finally able to put the ball into the net. Martin Atkinson disallowed that ball, when he saw that Emmanuel Adebayor used his arm to guide the ball back to Saha after it had struck his check. With a second mistake by Phil Jones at right back, you could see Rafael warming up on the touchline just before the halftime whistle.
As the first half went along, Tottenham tried to address the weakness they had in the center of the pitch by having Modric playing inside from the left wing position. As Tottenham’s offense built, Modric would cut in from the left to play in front of Livermore and Sandro so he would see more of the ball and maybe able to make the key pass in the final third that Tottenham was missing the entire first half. This left nobody on the left, except for Benoit Assou-Ekotto who was making forward runs but he was never able to put in an effective cross. This turned out being a blessing for United, as this saved their weakest defender, Phil Jones, from being exposed to sustained pressure. Even with Modric cutting in towards the middle, Tottenham were still having problems as Livermore and Sandro stayed so deep that they didn’t have a chance to take advantage of overload. Instead, it really left Modric alone in the middle to deal with Carrick and Scholes defending.
United had problems with possession, but they did manage a couple of attacking opportunities. In the 26th minute, Scholes managed to make a pass up to Welbeck, who had plenty of space in front of him. He ran forward to the edge of the penalty box where Ledley King knocked it away but United held onto the ball and got it to Ashley Young on the left wing. Young managed a decent cross, but there was nobody at the far post to deal with the ball. While United didn’t have much for possession, and only a few attacks, Tottenham’s back four looked flatfooted once United was able to get the ball into the final third. Tottenham’s midfield played defense well, but their back four wasn’t near as strong. This was clear, when on the 44th minute, Manchester United managed to win a corner that Ashley Young struck beautifully to Wayne Rooney, who headed it past Brad Friedel to give United a 1-0 lead. While Ashley Young played a great corner, Kyle Walker played some horrible defense and allowed Rooney to step in front of him and take an easy header to put the ball in the net.
With Tottenham having so much possession in the first half, United were lucky to go into the halftime break with a 1-0 lead. Tottenham went into halftime having just over 55% possession, and 8 shots (but only 3 on target). This just goes to highlight the problems that Tottenham had getting quality chances against United’s defense, while United was having an easier time dealing with Tottenham’s defense. The main story of the first half was Tottenham’s control of the ball, but their inability to turn possession into goal-scoring opportunities. United was also able to take advantage of the problems that Tottenham had in their back four, as they were able to score 1 goal in only 3 chances.
Coming out in the second half, Tottenham made a few of changes. First, they had Livermore playing farther forward in hopes that he could assist in the attack while keeping Sandro back as a holding midfielder. Kyle Walker, at right back, was making more attacking runs then he managed in the first half. Their most important shift was that Luka Modric played almost entirely in the middle. After halftime, Tottenham was not playing with anybody on the left wing anymore. Towards the end of the first half, Luka Modric would cut inside when Tottenham had the ball in hopes of helping the Spurs create some opportunities and make the key pass needed to unlock United’s defense. But, in the second half, he was also playing towards the middle on defense as well. This left United with an advantage on the right side, as Benoit Assou-Ekotto was left alone to deal with Nani.
Unfortunately for United, Nani had a rather forgettable game with his only real contribution being an assist on Ashley Young’s first goal. In the 60th minute, Phil Jones took a throw-in to Nani at the by-line. Luka Modric was caught out of position, and couldn’t do anything as Nani charged by him into the penalty box and put a beautiful pass across the goal mouth which Kyle Walker made a disastrous half-hearted clearance which made it no further than Ashley Young, who put in the net with a nice half-volley which left Brad Friedel with no chance.
With United now up 2-0, Harry Redknapp had Sandro and Livermore play in a more advanced midfield position, in hope of being able to create more chances with the ball. The downside of this for Tottenham, though, is it gave Scholes and Carrick plenty of space and time on the ball. While Scholes didn’t have his best game, Carrick did well for himself. Carrick really came alive in the second half, when he started getting more time on the ball. Scholes had a hard time as Livermore and Sandro closed him down so quickly that it disrupted his rhythm and he couldn’t make those long diagonal passes to the wings that he’s made with startling accuracy since he returned to the team in January.
Jonny Evans and Rio Ferdinand continued with their impressive play that they managed in the first half, and Phil Jones had a much better second half. He was caught out a couple times in the first half, which lead to Tottenham’s best attacking chance, but in the second half he played much better. It helped that Luka Modric was playing almost entirely in the middle of the field, so he only needed to deal with Benoit Assou-Ekotto when he made forward runs. With Jonny Evans and Rio Ferdinand playing such good defense, Emmanuel Adebayor and Louis Saha were fairly ineffective most of the game and didn’t get many touches. Louis Saha did better than Adebayor, in that Saha would track back to get the ball while Adebayor stayed forward and was shut down by the two United center-backs.
With United up 2-0, Ryan Giggs was brought on for Paul Scholes in the 62nd minute. Giggs took up the position next to Carrick in the midfield. With Giggs joining Carrick in the midfield, United now dealt with more offensive pressure from Tottenham as they tried to get back into the game. They had a good chance just after Giggs came on, when Aaron Lennon blew by Evra on the right side and chipped a cross to the far post. Jonny Evans managed to get up to it and head it away right in front of Luka Modric. The ball didn’t get any further then Assou-Ekotto, but he took a bad shot that rolled out near the corner flag.
With United now up by 2 goals, Tottenham had both Livermore and Sandro play in a more advanced position, which gave United’s center pairing of Carrick and Giggs even more time and space in the midfield to play smart passes out to the wings. In addition to the extra time for Carrick and Giggs, Wayne Rooney now had more space in front of Tottenham’s defensive line, and United was able to create some good chances with the extra space.
In the 69th minute, United was able to get a third goal. United got the ball back and Tottenham had by now started to lose their defensive shape as they tried to push forward with the ball. This left a large gap between their defense and their midfield. Evra brought the ball up on the left side and passed it inside to Ashley Young. Young had a huge amount of space in front of him, and ran it inside about 20 yards towards Danny Welbeck, who was marked by both Kaboul and King. When Young approached the top of the penalty box, Kaboul stepped out to challenge him. Ashley Young was able to use Welbeck and King to screen Friedel, and hit a curling shot which the Spurs goalkeeper had no chance of stopping.
In the 80th minute, United subbed out Nani. While Nani contributed to Ashley Young’s first goal, this was not his best game. He was quiet for long stretches of the game, so he wasn’t taken off and replaced with Park Ji-Sung, who was brought on to help with the defense on the right side of the midfield as Tottenham started pressing hard to make up the 3 goals. At the same time, Tottenham subbed in Jermain Defoe for Louis Saha and Niko Kranjcar for Sandro. Jermain Defoe played up front with Adebayor, while Niko Kranjcar was put on the left wing to take the spot that Luka Modric had vacated when he started playing inside.
The Niko Kranjcar substitution makes sense as for most of the second half they had no threat coming from the left-side. This helped United as it made the defense assignment for Phil Jones much easier, and he was the weak link in the back four of United today. Jermain Defoe came in to replace Saha, who was arguably a much more effect attacking option the Emmanuel Adebayor. They removed their most effective striker, and while Defoe played well when he came on, they may have been better off to replace Adebayor.
In the 84th minute, Tottenham made their last substitution of the game and brought on Danny Rose for Aaron Lennon. With Rose on, they switched Niko Kranjcar over to the right wing, and Danny Rose played left wing. At this point in the game, United seemed determine to just run out the rest of the clock and go home with their 3 points. Unfortunately, Ryan Giggs made a confusing pass to the middle of the pitch with no United players nearby. Jermain Defoe ran up on it and took it and put it in the net from 25 meters out. Once again, United is punished for their complacent play. With the Spurs getting this goal, it robbed De Gea of a much deserved clean sheet and it made the last 5 minutes of the match more stressful then they should have been.
The key battle in this game ended up being between United’s center-back, Jonny Evans, and how he was able to deal with the strength and aerial ability of Emmanuel Adebayor for Tottenham. Jonny Evans has been having a great season so far, especially since he came back from his injury in December. Evans has really improved his aerial play this year, and this has been well received after United lost their most potent aerial defender in Nemanja Vidic for the season. Evans was very effective tonight in making Adebayor almost no threat throughout the game. Louis Saha had a bit more effect then Adebayor did in this game, but that was mainly due to the fact that we would venture back towards the midfield to collect the ball while Adebayor stayed up front but got very little service. Tottenham tried to play the ball into Adebayor, but he only received 4 passes inside the penalty area. This left him as a very ineffective striker and he was only able to manage two shots, with one of them off target from more than 30 meters. In addition, when Adebayor did gather the ball, Evans was able to force him to play passes backwards away from the net. As the game went on, Adebayor had less effect. In the second half, once Tottenham had to start pressing with their midfield to try and catch up with United, that gave United more room in attack and made it even more difficult for Tottenham to get the ball into the final third. Evans did such a good job on Adebayor that he was mostly ineffective through the entire game.
United was able to hold on, and close the game out with a 3-0 at White Hart Lane. This keeps United 2 points behind City in the chase for the Premier League trophy. This also ends United’s toughest stretch of games, as they play their next 8 league games against teams in the bottom half of the table. This should leave United in a good position to win their 20th league trophy, as City has a more challenging series of opponents. But United needs to ensure they don’t give points away from complacency.
Manchester United played probably their best defensive game of the year, with the center-back pairing of Evans and Ferdinand giving their best performance of the season. They managed to completely shut down Adebayor and Saha, with the only real chance in the first 80 minutes coming from Aaron Lennon beating Phil Jones off the right side and crossing the ball to Saha for a goal that was disallowed for handball.
Patrice Evra has had a rough time this season, with his defense being suspect on many occasions, but he did very well today. A player like Aaron Lennon, with his pace, should have caused problems for the left-back, but he managed to control him extremely well. He didn’t go forward as much as he has in previous games, but his defensive positioning was much better. Even more impressive for Evra is that he managed to control Lennon with Ashley Young providing him his defensive assistance. On the other side, Phil Jones had a rough game. He was beat several times in the first half, giving up a silly foul on the edge of the penalty box and then getting beat by Lennon on the disallowed goal. After the halftime break, he had a much better second half. Tottenham can take credit for part of this as they had Modric play inside in the second half so Jones only needed to deal with Assou-Ekotto when he ran down the touchline.
One of the biggest problems that Tottenham had during the game was how they didn’t have balance in their shape. With Modric playing so far in on the left side, their team had the majority of their threat coming through the right side of the formation. This didn’t take advantage of the weakest United defender, Phil Jones at right back. Instead, Tottenham played their offense through the best part of United’s defense. Harry Redknapp’s decision to play Luka Modric out on the left wing is curious in that he had Niko Kranjcar and Danny Rose, both of whom he’s play out on the left wing later in the game after United had already taken a 3-0 lead. By the time he brought his most creative attacking midfielder back into his normal position, the game was largely out of reach for Tottenham. One has to wonder if this game would have ended differently if he had kept Modric in the midfield. Would Luka Modric have been able to unlock the tight defense that United had in their penalty area?
Now, United’s midfield didn’t have their best game. For much of the game, Sandro and Livermore for Tottenham shut down Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes. They didn’t allow them to have any time on the ball, so the United midfielders dropped slightly deeper to help in defense and see if they could get some additional time on the ball. With Carrick and Scholes playing deeper, it allowed Nani and Young to play further up the field. The two United wingers playing farther up the field was important in the second and third goals that United managed to get.
Danny Welbeck had a fairly quiet game, as the Red Devils struggled to hold onto possession and it left Welbeck not getting many touches. In the second half, he started to drop deeper to gather the ball up, and was involved in a couple different goal scoring opportunities. Wayne Rooney made his biggest contribution on defense, as he dropped deep to provide extra help and grit in the midfield, keeping Tottenham from being able to get many goal scoring chances. Once Tottenham had to start pressing after United’s second goal, it left Rooney with additional space to operate in. Once this happened, United was able to start controlling play better.
United had a problem all game with possession. Even with United up 3-0, with only 10 minutes left, Tottenham still had 58% possession. This figure goes to show how solid United’s defense was today, how weak Tottenham’s ability to get that last pass into the final third to unlock the defense. On the other end, with only 42% possession, United was able to put 3 goals past the Tottenham defense. They looked flatfooted, and Kyle Walker had a bad game. He was beat by Rooney off the corner for the first goal, and then he made a mess of a goal-line clearance that went right to Ashley Young, who put it in for United’s second goal. United definitely had a much better game finishing the Tottenham had. Tottenham managed 18 shots during the game, while the Red Devils only took 6 shots. Of Tottenham’s 18 shots, they only managed to put 6 on target. Manchester United got 3 goals, from 5 shots on target. That shows that while United didn’t have the possession or as many attacking attempts as Tottenham, their attacks were of better quality and they did much better at finishing off their attacks. 50% of Tottenham’s shots came from outside the penalty area, while United had 2/3rd of their shots inside the Spurs area.
It’s encouraging for Manchester United that they were able to beat Tottenham like this, even though they didn’t control the ball. Their defense was solid, and held out an impressive Tottenham attack. Now, the Spurs were missing Gareth Bale. They were playing Luka Modric out of position. But this is still a quality win for United. The item that concerns me is the goal in the 87th minute for Jermain Defoe. Ryan Giggs gave up a weak pass in the middle of the pitch to nobody it seems, allowing Defoe to take the ball and slot it past De Gea. The Red Devils cannot afford to drop points in the next 8 games, as these are games against teams that United should be able to beat. Losing to a quality team is one thing, but dropping points to a substandard team from complacency is unforgiveable. Manchester City has done well this year at beating the teams they are supposed to, so United can’t afford to drop points. The biggest problem from this game wasn’t Tottenham having more possession; it’s giving away weak goals. Hopefully United can learn from this game, and go through these next 8 league games strong. Next game is on Thursday against Athletic Bilbao.
By Joe_Hammer (@RangeRooney)