Man United 3-0 Tottenham: second half improvement puts United in command
Manchester United won an entertaining game 3-0, though it was evenly-balanced until the first goal.
Sir Alex Ferguson used the front six that played the second half of the Community Shield final, though had to make various changes at the back, where United had a lot of inexperienced players.
Luka Modric wasn’t available for selection, so Niko Kranjcar played his role, alongside Jake Livermore.
This was a very enjoyable game. Neither side played a target man, nor a holding midfielder – instead the midfield and forward lines were based around technical quality, and it produced some great football.
This was a game largely based around possession football. An open, stretched encounter meant plenty of space for the two midfield duos, who both played as units and took it in turns to move forward, adding to the fluidity.
With both sides wanting to pass the ball, the central midfielders came increasingly deep, away from their direct opponent, to pick up possession in space. Tom Cleverley and Livermore both moved close to their centre-backs to get the ball, and then distributed it intelligently. Anderson was more rash early on and a little too ambitious with his passes, whilst Kranjcar is a good footballer, but not a central midfielder.
In a sense, this was a bit of an old-fashioned game. Both sides played two banks of four, then a creative forward alongside a pacey striker. With the midfield battle open, and the central midfielders tempted higher up the pitch to close down their opposite numbers, space emerged between the lines of defence and midfield, perfect for Wayne Rooney and Rafael van der Vaart to drop into.
Neither took advantage of this as much as they should have in the first half, though it was notable that both Jonny Evans and Michael Dawson were tempted out from the back and into rash tackles. Spurs’ defenders probably had the tougher job, because the movement of United’s front four was more advanced, with Rooney and Danny Welbeck moving wide and Ashley Young and Nani coming inside.
Another interesting contrast was between the goalkeepers – 20-year-old David De Gea and 40-year-old Brad Friedel. Friedel was the more impressive at traditional goalkeeping attributes (despite the scoreline) but the Spaniard was superior with his distribution, perhaps coming from a generation where good delivery from the back is expected, rather than a bonus.
Friedel’s kicking was often wayward, and when Jermain Defoe is used upfront alone, Spurs lack an aerial option – making it profitable for the opposition to press them when Friedel has the ball, forcing a long kick downfield, likely to be unsuccessful. Gareth Bale is good in the air and often a good option in these situations, and so United were actually fortunate to be using a centre-back at right-back up against him, able to challenge in the air. Chris Smalling also cut out Dawson’s favoured ball – a long diagonal towards Bale.
The second half looked like being decided by either Rooney or van der Vaart, depending upon which was better at finding space between the lines. It was Rooney. He’d started moving deeper around the 30 minute mark, but after the break he started to dictate play, knocking good passes towards Cleverley and Anderson breaking from midfield, and spreading the play wide for crosses. It also helped that Dawson, on a booking, was reluctant to follow him out and make tackles.
Van der Vaart took up good positions but Spurs’ other attackers often failed to find him – most notably when Aaron Lennon could have cut the ball back, but elected to drive it into the six-yard box. Spurs caught United 4 v 4 a couple of times, but decision-making in the final third was poor.
Redknapp gambled on a half-fit Tom Huddlestone and Roman Pavlyuchenko when behind, withdrawing both his central midfielders. This simply opened up the game and played into United’s hands, and Redknapp might wish he was a little more cautious in trying to get back into the game – Spurs looked tired late on, and United ran up a scoreline that was slightly harsh considering how even the game was for the majority.
The openness here was caused by the selection of players – two sets of technically-gifted midfielders, and forwards who wanted balls played to feet, rather than long, hopeful balls.
United looked impressive, especially at the back considering the inexperience there – tactically, they were similar to in the Community Shield final, although there was relatively little end product from the two wingers.
Spurs should take heart from this game – for 60 minutes they competed, and with Modric back in the side (or the chance to reinvest the money they get for him), they should challenge for the top four again.