Manchester United 2-0 Tottenham: Redknapp’s fears about set-pieces turn out to prove crucial
Spurs played good football in the first half, but a sloppy goal put them on the back foot, and they never recovered.
Sir Alex Ferguson went with a 4-4-2 / 4-2-2-2 shape. Michael Carrick was in the side ahead of Paul Scholes, Park Ji-Sung started on the left, and Rafael da Silva was chosen to marshal Gareth Bale, presumably because of his pace.
Harry Redknapp left out Peter Crouch with Wednesday’s game against Inter in mind, acknowledging before the game that United were strong in the air, and Spurs would instead need to play along the ground. Instead, Robbie Keane was deployed as a lone frontman. Tom Huddlestone was also absent, with Jermaine Jenas in a deep midfield role.
Neither side had anything like a true defensive midfielder or ‘destroyer’ in the centre of the pitch. Jermaine Jenas is not really a holding player, he’s someone who does a bit of everything. Luka Modric is a playmaker. Michael Carrick is a deep-lying regista. Darren Fletcher certainly has the attributes to play in a holding role, but he was used as a box-to-box player, ahead of Carrick for most of the game.
This links back to the question of what a central midfielder does in modern football. It also created an open, attractive game with both sides looking to play through midfield. There was not much of a midfield ’scrap’ – few challenges took place in that area, and the only two players who were booked for fouls throughout the game where William Gallas and Younes Kaboul, both for mistimed tackles when following their striker into deep zones.
As a result, neither side was very good at defending in midfield areas – the closing down was not quick enough, and this resulted in a very high number of shots from 20-30 yards in the opening half hour – ten between the two sides. The closest to scoring were Park and Rafael van der Vaart, who both hit the post in the opening ten minutes, from very similar range.
Manchester United were playing very narrow, with Park taking up something like a permanent central position, and Nani looking to drift inside as well. In this sense, United became 4-2-2-2 with the ball, packing the centre of the pitch and making Tottenham’s two wide players almost useless in the defensive phase of play. Rafael and Patrice Evra attempted a couple of forward runs, but nothing like the frequency with which they generally get into the opposition third in home matches. The Chalkboard below shows that United never looked to play the ball into attacking wide zones in the first half – the only passes completed in those areas are from a throw-in in the 44th minute.
It’s not often a manager explicitly states his side’s weakness before a match, but Redknapp was happy to do so.
“It’s an attacking team, it’s a small team – our biggest problem might come from dealing with set plays – apart from Kaboul and Gallas we’re not over-blessed with height…”
Midway through the first half, this came into play in a big way. Nani’s free-kick was fizzed in relatively low, and Nemanja Vidic glance a trademark header perfectly into the far corner. Height was not necessarily the issue as much as players not comfortable in the air (and poor marking) – but it’s no coincidence that Redknapp correctly predicted where his team would be vulnerable.
Tottenham were bright and responded reasonably well. United were outnumbered in the centre of the pitch and van der Vaart was one of the key players when Tottenham had the ball – always finding space and making a couple of excellent runs into the penalty box. They seemed to lack an end product, however – and with Spurs accustomed to playing a ‘big man’ upfront, the presence of Keane forced them to change their gameplan. Keane’s link-up play was good, but Bale and Aaron Lennon seemed slightly unsure of what to do when they had the ball in wide areas. In this zone Spurs needed better support from their full-backs – United’s wingers taking up narrow positions should have invited Benoit Assou-Ekotto and Alan Hutton forward more. Hutton tried to provide an attacking presence, but his touch on the ball was poor.
United were far from home and dry, and in open play they created few clear-cut chances. They appeared to have problems getting the ball to their front two, and both Dimitar Berbatov and Javier Hernandez had little impact upon the game.
The withdrawal of Berbatov for Paul Scholes was an acknowledgement both that the Bulgarian was off-form, and that United risked being overrun in the centre of the pitch, and letting van der Vaart go free. They switched to 4-1-4-1, with Carrick the deepest player, Scholes to the left and Fletcher to the right, and they closed the game down very well.
United kept it tighter between the lines and their wingers stayed in wider positions, keeping their shape and denying Tottenham space to pass the ball. Only an excellent run from Bale in an inside-right position caused United significant problems – the Welshman running with the ball to provide a direct goalscoring threat was a better tactic for Spurs than him crossing the ball: the Chalkboard below shows that his crossing was unsuccessful throughout the game (not helped by Spurs’ lack of height).
Peter Crouch replaced van der Vaart after the Dutchman’s injury, but United looked comfortable late on. Nani’s bizarre goal sealed the win.
A few interesting factors – the lack of holding players, United’s narrowness in the first half, Tottenham’s lack of height – eventually the game came down to the simple concept of defending free-kicks. Tottenham arguably played the better football in open play but had no direct route of attack, whilst they conceded a very simple goal with no-one picking up Vidic.Manchester United 2-0 Tottenham: Redknapp’s fears about set-pieces turn out to prove crucial