Manchester United 3-1 Tottenham: Full-back errors cost Spurs

April 24, 2010

A classic game of two halves: the first stale, tight and one that took 28 minutes for a shot – the second open, exciting and stretched. United played poorly in the final third but took advantage of Spurs mistakes.

United lined up in a fairly standard 4-4-2 shape – Ryan Giggs played off to the right of Dimitar Berbatov rather than from midfield, with Paul Scholes and Darren Fletcher taking it in turns to venture forward.

Spurs also lined up 4-4-2, although there were switches from the sides that beat Arsenal and Chelsea – Benoit Assou-Ekotto was moved to right-back, Gareth Bale brought back to left-back, Luka Modric went out to the left of midfield, and Wilson Palacios came into the centre. Jermain Defoe continued to drop off when Spurs didn’t have the ball, although with United playing a midfield two rather than a midfield three, his presence wasn’t needed too much.

Nevertheless, the fact that Defoe played deeper for Spurs than Giggs did for United meant that Spurs often had more players in the centre of midfield. To add to this, Modric played very narrow from the left, and Spurs were well in the game until half-time, although they struggled to create any chances.

Modric struggled to put his stamp on the game – shunted out to the left, rather than excelling in the centre alongside Tom Huddlestone, as he did against Arsenal and against Chelsea. Part of the problem was that he was up against Antonio Valencia, who is excellent defensively – on more than one occasion Modric made an excellent diagonal run but was tracked all the way by Valencia.

The most surprising feature of the first half was how rarely United’s full-backs got forward – as against Arsenal and Chelsea, Spurs played extremely narrow, but neither Patrice Evra or Rafael were consistently getting forward to stretch the play.

The second half was more open, and it was no surprise that United’s opener came when Evra finally got forward, and into the penalty area on the left – Assou-Ekotto made a stupid tackle to bring him down, and Giggs scored the subsequent penalty kick.

Harry Redknapp immediately switched things around – bringing on Aaron Lennon for David Bentley, then moving Palacios to right-back, returning Assou-Ekotto to the left, pushing Bale forward and Modric into the middle, making the Spurs side more similar to the one of the past two games.

By this stage Valencia had departed for United through injury. His replacement was Michael Carrick, with United going to 4-5-1 with Giggs on the left and Nani on the right.

And so we had different battles across the pitch suddenly, and most importantly gave Bale the freedom to run at Rafael (with Nani not covering as well as Valencia would have done). Bale forced a corner from Rafael straight away, and Ledley King headed in to give Spurs the equaliser. Rafael – supposed to be marking the far post – moved forward off the line and couldn’t recover in time, as the ball flew past him.

United returned to 4-4-2 with the introduction of Federico Macheda, and this helped catch Spurs out defensively. Assou-Ekotto had gone forward momentarily, Bale covered at left-back, but then completely switched off and failed to track Nani’s run. Macheda made a run towards the ball, drew King towards the play – and then Nani seized on (a) Bale’s lapse in concentration and (b) King moving out of position by following Macheda, to cut in and chip the ball over Gomes.

United’s third was another clumsy foul in the right-back area – this time Palacios run into the back of Nani, and Giggs converted his spot-kick to seal the game.

Should the blame go to Tottenham’s tactics, or the individual errors by their full-backs? Certainly Assou-Ekotto, Bale and Palacios hardly covered themselves in glory, but all three were playing out-of-position when the mistakes were made. Assou-Ekotto was a left-back playing at right-back, Bale a left-midfielder (in recent weeks) covering at left-back, and Palacios a holding midfielder playing at right-back.¬†After two such positive results, switching so many players into different positions was a strange move. It’s also fair to say that the narrow formation that worked so well against Arsenal and Chelsea left Spurs exposed against United’s wingers.

For United, it was another below-par display resulting in a win, and for the second consecutive week their best player was probably Paul Scholes. They simply seem so short of attacking options when Wayne Rooney is unavailable, and Ryan Giggs’ two penalties cover up the fact that he had a very quiet game playing as a forward.

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