Manchester United 2-3 Tottenham: Spurs attack directly then defend deep

October 1, 2012

The starting line-ups

An excellent first half performance put Tottenham in control, and they hung on with a fine defensive performance in the second half.

Sir Alex Ferguson brought Paul Scholes back into the starting line-up and used Ryan Giggs on the left. Wayne Rooney was on the bench.

Andre Villas-Boas chose Clint Dempsey ahead of Gylfi Sigurdsson, and played Jan Vertonghen at left-back with Steven Caulker coming into the centre of the pitch. Brad Fridel continued in goal.

The halves were completely different – Tottenham were excellent going forward before half-time, before gradually sitting deeper and deeper in the second half.


The sides lined up roughly as expected, with Clint Dempsey playing a hybrid role, half-midfielder, half-forward. His energy helped Tottenham to press in the first few minutes, and United took a long time to get into a good passing rhythm. Jermain Defoe, Dempsey and Moussa Dembele all worked very hard in the centre of the pitch, while Sandro was more reserved and stayed goalside of Shinji Kagawa.

United seemed particularly keen to get the ball out to Nani on the right, in order for the Portuguese winger to run at Vertonghen, who was playing out of position (although in a role he’s played before) at left-back. It was Vertonghen who got the early breakthrough, however, with a direct run at the heart of the Manchester United defence, and this sums up what Spurs did well throughout the first half – they dribbled directly towards goal and took United by surprise.

Defoe + movement

The second goal was not dissimilar, with Bale picking up the ball on the left before sprinting past Rio Ferdinand to score a fine goal. For both goals, the movement of Jermain Defoe played a significant part, despite him not touching the ball. For the first he’d drawn Ferdinand into the right-back position, leaving a gap in the centre of defence. For the second, he made a superb run across the pitch to drag Jonny Evans behind Ferdinand, making Bale’s path to goal much easier.

Tottenham’s directness on the ball was highly impressive, epitomised by Dembele’s second excellent performance at Old Trafford in just over a month, and replacing a passer like Luka Modric with a dribbler like Dembele has changed the way Tottenham play in that zone. For the second week running, United’s lack of a ball-winner was an obvious weakness.

Static United

United were very poor in the opening half, unable to provide reliable service to their forwards. This was partly because of Tottenham pressing limiting Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes’ passing influence, but also because United’s movement was terrible. The game bypassed Giggs on the left, while Nani remained a long way from Robin van Persie. Kagawa doesn’t yet seem comfortable in the side, and a couple of times van Persie moved out to the left, only to look up and find no-one in the box to cross to.

United are still yet to pass to Kagawa in the manner he likes – he wants more incisive balls played beyond opponents for him to run into, rather than short passes into feet when tightly marked. There was only one pass into him that fitted the bill – Carrick’s slide ball between two Tottenham players (just before Bale’s goal), met with a smart turn from Kagawa to get away from his opponents. United haven’t had a player like Kagawa for a long time (arguably, never before in Ferguson’s tenure) and they’re unaccustomed to basing their play around a direct number ten.

United changes

Ferguson rightly removed Giggs at half-time, pushing Kagawa left and bringing on Wayne Rooney in the hole. Immediately there was so much more movement from the home side, with Kagawa drifting in, Nani more central and Rooney supporting van Persie closely. The two wide players scored in the first ten minutes of the second half, which would have been unthinkable before half-time – Giggs and Nani were simply playing too far from goal.

In a frantic three-minute spell, Tottenham also scored. Again, excellent work by Defoe on the left created the chance, dragging Ferdinand out of position – this time with his work on the ball.

Tottenham drop deep

So, 3-2 to Tottenham – and now, their approach changed. They were exhausted from their early pressing, and now had to sit deep and allow United the run of the midfield. Villas-Boas tried a few different strategies to try and press Scholes and Carrick, but generally discovered that when one was closed down, the other took control and provided good balsl into the final third.

Villas-Boas removed Dempsey and brought on Sigurdsson, but then strangely pushed Dembele higher onto Scholes. It would have been better to use the fresh legs of Sigurdsson as the presser, with Dembele sitting deeper – but the experiment didn’t last long before Dembele was replaced by Tom Huddlestone and all three midfielders sat much deeper.

United pressure

Tottenham simply couldn’t keep the ball – Defoe’s performance was excellent in terms of movement, but he clearly wasn’t the man to hold the ball up. United completed ten times as many passes as Tottenham in the second half, a staggering statistic.

Ferguson replaced Kagawa with Welbeck, but he had little impact on the game. The other striking option, Javier Hernandez, wasn’t particularly tempting as Spurs were sitting so deep. The Mexican was only introduced in stoppage time, shortly after Villas-Boas had replaced Defoe with Michael Dawson and gone 5-5-0 – which meant Ferguson could sacrifice Ferdinand and chuck another striker on. A couple of half-chances aside, United’s pressure didn’t result in the expected number of chances in the final half hour, as Spurs’ back four stayed narrow and cleared most balls played into the box.


Lots to talk about here: Spurs’ pressing, their directness and their attempts to nullify Carrick and Scholes before sitting back late on. On the other hand, you can pinpoint United’s poor movement, their lack of a ball-winner and Kagawa’s struggles as reasons for the result.

The key was Spurs’ dribbling ability from deep positions, combined with Defoe’s fantastic movement to drag opponents out of position. He created the space, while Vertonghen, Bale, Lennon, Dembele and Dempsey charged into it – the movement was very Zenit St Petersburg. Lone strikers don’t need to be big and strong to be effective – although those qualities would have helped when Spurs were too tired to get midfield runners up the pitch.

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