Tottenham 1-1 Manchester United: United stop Bale, but leave gaps elsewhere

January 21, 2013

The starting line-ups - Cleverley and Welbeck switched after around 15 mins

Tottenham finally managed a last-minute equaliser, after constant pressure throughout the majority of the game.

Andre Villas-Boas used Scott Parker in the holding midfielder role, in place of the injured Sandro, who is expected to be out for the rest of the season. With Emmanuel Adebayor at the Africa Cup of Nations, Clint Dempsey played just behind Jermain Defoe, while Jan Vertonghen’s illness meant he was only on the bench.

Sir Alex Ferguson surprisingly used Phil Jones – effectively in place of the injured Ashley Young when compared with last week’s game against Liverpool, although this obviously meant a change in formation. Wayne Rooney was fit again, but only on the bench after good performances from Shinji Kagawa and Danny Welbeck last weekend.

Dempsey’s late equaliser changed the scoreline and the narrative, but it shouldn’t change analysis of the game – United defended well for long periods, but invited too much pressure and failed to counter-attack effectively.

United formation

The first key issue was Ferguson’s formation. With the versatility of Kagawa, Jones, Welbeck and Tom Cleverley, this could have been a 4-4-2, a 4-4-1-1, a 4-3-3, a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-4-2 diamond. In the end, it was more or less a 4-2-3-1, although because United spent long periods without the ball, and the wide players dropped back, it was also frequently a 4-4-1-1. Kagawa stayed central, behind Robin van Persie.

Welbeck started wide-right, with Cleverley playing an odd, left-sided shuttling role – part-central midfielder, part-left-sided midfielder. Welbeck was possibly regarded as the better player to help out against Gareth Bale, although Cleverley’s narrowness gave Kyle Walker the chance to get forward – Kyle Naughton, on the other side, is less of a threat because he’s very right-footed.

Whether there was any logic behind Cleverley and Welbeck’s switch, after around 15 minutes, is difficult to say. However, it clearly had an important impact upon the game – van Persie’s opener came after Welbeck had dribbled in from the left, spread the play to the right, then Cleverley had sent a fine, right-footed cross to the far post. It’s difficult to imagine the goal would have occurred had the two wide players not swapped.

United v Bale

Once the formations had been deduced, the key issue was how United tried to stop Gareth Bale. Tottenham had beaten United earlier in the season following a fine display of direct dribbling – and while Vertonghen and Mousa Dembele had contributed to that, Bale was clearly the man Ferguson wanted to stop.

Indeed, United’s whole approach was geared to prevent Tottenham breaking forward into space quickly. Gone was the high pressing, as seen against Liverpool last week, and instead United sat deep in two banks of four, staying compact and allowing Spurs to dominate possession.

As for Bale – his threat was the reason for Phil Jones’ involvement. As I wrote here for the Guardian:

Jones sat patiently in front of the defence, right-of-centre, always in a position to help Rafael da Silva deal with Bale. The Brazilian has fared well in one-against-one situations against the Tottenham winger over the past couple of seasons – Bale score at Old Trafford earlier in the season, but this came when the Welshman charged directly at the centre of United’s defence.

Jones’s positioning here prevented that possibility, as he subtly ushered Bale down the flank, where Rafael’s good defending meant it took Bale an hour to deliver a decent cross. As Bale became frustrated at his lack of space, he wandered into the centre of the pitch, away from both Jones and Da Silva.

That, in itself, was evidence that United’s approach had been successful: Bale’s experiments with a central role last season came after he complained about being double-marked, especially in home games, but he does not possess the all-round ability to thrive from a starting position in the centre, particularly as United remained so deep and compact.

Jones’ defensive work took place towards the right touchline:

And United’s average position was skewed hugely to the right:


Inevitably, such a focus upon one man meant United were vulnerable to the movement of others. With Jones playing almost as an auxiliary right-back at times, and Michael Carrick a little unsure of his positioning in the first half (he prefers to play right-of-centre), Dempsey got too much space between the lines, forcing Carrick into a rash tackle and a rare booking. United never truly worked out how to cope with Dempsey – as last week’s second half against Liverpool showed, United’s centre-backs are reluctant to come out of the defence to meet a deep-lying forward, for fear of leaving their centre-back colleague exposed one-against-one versus a quick player.

The way the American wandered through the United defence in the second half – seemingly surprising himself by getting into a one-on-one with David De Gea before poking the ball at the goalkeeper – was a good example of United being overly concerned with Bale. Nemanja Vidic, the left-sided centre-back, was dragged all the way over to the opposite side of the pitch to track a run from Bale that wasn’t particularly dangerous. Dempsey waltzed through, and should have scored.


The other main threat was Aaron Lennon. The right-winger has been one of Tottenham’s star performers this season, and in concentrating so much attention on Bale, United left Lennon free. Patrice Evra twice fouled him in the first half, leading to a yellow card, and there was one incident where Lennon dribbled inside into a huge space in the centre, because United were so tilted towards the opposite flank.

In the second half Lennon stepped up his game. Evra stood off, and Lennon came deep, turned and dribbled dangerously – substitute Wayne Rooney was the second man to be booked for fouling him. His end product was good – he set up Defoe for the chance that forced Rio Ferdinand to make a fine block, and would later provide the pass for Dempsey’s equaliser. Welbeck, when moved to the left of midfield, did a decent defensive job on Walker – it was simply Lennon leading the fight solo.

Lennon received the ball much less frequently than Bale, but as he was given more freedom, he was far more creative.

United breaks?

Although United were minutes away from recording a clean sheet, their defence had been breached frequently enough for De Gea to be called into action multiple times. It was clear their lack of possession was influenced by the fact they didn’t want to move up the pitch and concede space in behind, but why did they offer so little counter-attacking threat? Just two shots on target is their poorest tally of the season, and completely at odds with their away performance at Chelsea, for example, when they broke superbly down the right.

There were a couple of factors here, ranging from a relatively unspectacular passing display from Carrick, who focused predominantly on his defensive work, to some underhit final balls and some lazy positioning from van Persie, who strayed into an offside position twice when United did break down the right. But the lack of natural wingers was surely a factor – Young and Antonio Valencia were both key players in what seemed Ferguson’s ‘big game XI’ at one point earlier this season, and both have the ability to carry the ball forward at speed. With Young injured, Valencia out of form and Nani out of favour, Ferguson didn’t have that type of player on the pitch, and the juxtaposition with Lennon was telling.

There was little action from the benches. Villas-Boas called for Benoit Assou-Ekotto at left-back – at least he’s on his natural side, unlike Naughton – which prompted Ferguson to call for Valencia, as a more natural wide man than Cleverley. Rooney replaced Kagawa – United’s passing quality seemed to drop, although this was partly because Tottenham’s momentum was gathering anyway.


United were close to holding out – but even if they’d have kept a clean sheet, it would still have been fair to acknowledge they invited a huge amount of pressure. That was largely deliberate, of course, but the fact United were unable to break frequently enough to provide a consistent goal threat – or to force Villas-Boas into leaving players in defensive-minded positions – should be a concern.

But Lennon’s impact was possibly more interesting – his end product can be inconsistent, he should score more, and when both are at their best, Bale is clearly the better player. But not to the extent that United’s strategy suggested today, and future opponents should be careful not to  allow Lennon such freedom.

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