Tottenham 2-2 Manchester United: Villas-Boas uses a much more cautious system

December 2, 2013

United started with Kagawa as a number ten and Welbeck on the left, but switched to something more like this formation midway through the first half

Tottenham went ahead twice, but mistakes allowed Manchester United back into the game.

Andre Villas-Boas brought back Vlad Chiriches in defence, Mousa Dembele in midfield, plus Aaron Lennon and Nacer Chadli on the flanks.

David Moyes was still without Robin van Persie and Michael Carrick – Tom Cleverley partnered Phil Jones in the middle, despite the option of £27.5m signing Marouane Fellaini.

There was no major theme throughout this game, aside from its openness, but there were a variety of interesting tactical points.

Spurs’ defensive shape

The most notable feature of the formations was the complete change in Spurs’ defensive shape. Following the 6-0 defeat to Manchester City last weekend, of course, a change was badly needed – Sandro and the centre-backs had been exposed throughout the contest, and Spurs needed to protect the back four more effectively as a whole.

Spurs’ shape this season has appeared both 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 at times, but this was undeniably the latter. Mousa Dembele sat very deep, close to Sandro (unlike last week, where the Brazilian was on his own ahead of the defence) with Paulinho at the head of the triangle. Equally interesting, however, was the change in the positioning of the wide players – they protected the full-backs keenly rather than pressing high up the pitch, and for long periods Spurs were 4-4-1-1.

That’s fairly common for a 4-2-3-1 side, but unusual for a Villas-Boas side – usually he wants closing down from his midfielders, and it’s difficult to think of a time where Villas-Boas has deployed his wide players so cautiously. It was probably the reason for Nacer Chadli starting on the left – his attacking contribution was minimal, but he protected Jan Vertonghen well, albeit against a makeshift full-back in Chris Smalling.

Spurs played deeper as a whole, too. This is closely related to the lack of pressing, of course, but Chiriches and Michael Dawson dropped much deeper towards their own goal – Spurs were hardly parking the bus, but nor were they inviting United to attack the space in behind repeatedly, as has often been the case when Villas-Boas has faced big sides.

Spurs barely ever regained possession in the opposition half, compared to last week’s display against Manchester City.


One of the major signs of Spurs’ different shape was the positioning of Paulinho, who has played a variety of roles since his summer move to Tottenham. This was something new entirely – he played extremely high up the pitch, and if you you watching the Brazilian for the first time, you’d assume he was a support striker rather than a midfielder.

This was logical considering Roberto Soldado’s lack of support in recent weeks, and one move midway through the first half demonstrated the value of playing with a man close behind the Spaniard – Soldado turned beautifully away from an opponent, laid the ball to Paulinho and made a good forward run up in support – the Brazilian played a fine pass, but Soldado shot high and wide. It was a poor finish, but showed how Soldado might benefit with more support.

Paulinho played a completely different role from his previous home match, against Newcastle:

It’s also possible Villas-Boas wanted a man permanently in this zone because he knew United were without Carrick, and had looked vulnerable between the lines against Cardiff the previous weekend.

Kagawa / Rooney / Welbeck

In the absence of Van Persie, David Moyes used Shinji Kagawa, Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck. In theory, any of the trio could play as the central forward, the number ten or wide on the left – all three are somewhat confusing players, and it’s understandable that Moyes isn’t entirely sure where to deploy them. Welbeck is a great all-round footballer but doesn’t score enough, Rooney was previously renowned for his work rate but can seem disinterested without the ball as a number ten, allowing the opposition to dominate midfield, while Kagawa is still getting up to speed with English football and playing him as the number ten still appears risky.

But Moyes started with Rooney upfront and Kagawa just behind. That was the format during Manchester United’s impressive 5-0 destruction of Leverkusen in midweek, and it was natural Moyes wanted to continue with that system.

None of the trio seemed happy in the opening minutes, however. Welbeck is generally good defensively but was caught out of position a couple of times as Spurs attacked well down the right (as they had, at times, against City). Kagawa was generally unable to influence the game in the final third from his number ten role, although he found space intelligently and his passing was more reliable than any other player on the pitch, in a game short on technical quality. Rooney, meanwhile, simply wasn’t involved enough.

There was fluidity between the trio throughout the game, but at 1-0 down Moyes seemed to instruct Welbeck to move upfront, Kagawa to move left and Rooney to drop a little deeper. This worked much better – Kagawa’s not a great player defensively but he caused Kyle Walker more problems with his drifts inside (Walker, one suspects, would much prefer a battle about pace and power, against Welbeck), Rooney was much more prominent and arguably the game’s star player, while Welbeck made intelligent runs into the channels.

Although Spurs’ defensive line was deeper than usual, it still made sense to play a pacey player upfront. Rooney generally came towards the ball at the start of the game, which wasn’t particularly helpful in this respect. In stark contrast, the penalty Welbeck won in the second half – drawing a foul out of sweeper-keeper Hugo Lloris – showed the best way to attack Spurs was still in behind. Rooney’s excellent pass from a deeper position was also noteworthy, too, and when Rooney became a second striker, Kagawa could drift inside – much like the way Alvaro Negredo and Samir Nasri played against Spurs last weekend.

This game didn’t do much to improve the chances of Kagawa being fielded as a number ten permanently, however – as soon as things started to go wrong, Moyes immediately shoved him back to the left. This is all without Van Persie, too, whose return upfront means Rooney is even more likely to be fielded as the number ten.

Still, Kagawa’s passing was very good, and while his contributions in terms of goals and assists are poor, United have a good balance with Kagawa drifting inside and Valencia going down the line.

Lennon v Evra

The most interesting individual battle was between Aaron Lennon and Patrice Evra. The Frenchman seemed particularly nervous about Lennon’s pace and trickery from the start, having struggled against him in the past. He stuck extremely tight and was fortunate not to collect an early booking for a clumsy tackle – a yellow card eventually came much later.

Lennon’s play was interesting throughout this game because he continually made off-the-ball runs in behind the defence. Traditionally he’s an old-fashioned winger – someone who stays wide, receives the ball to feet and then dribbles past an opposition full-back.

His direct running gave an outlet for his teammates, who could slide a through-ball into his path – something lacking when Andros Townsend has played out wide. This resulted in two good situations in the first half: first a goalscoring chance for Lennon himself, which wasn’t taken (goalscoring is undeniably his major shortcoming) and then he got in behind Evra and played a good low cross along the six-yard line. Inexplicably, Soldado wasn’t sprinting towards the near post, and his movement was again very disappointing in this match.

Lennon won tackles, protecting his full-back well, and while he often stayed wide, he also received passes in behind the opposition defence too:

Jones overloads right flank for Rooney goal

Rooney’s first goal owed much to a Kyle Walker error, but it was interesting to see Phil Jones playing the cross for the goal, despite starting in a central midfield position.

One of the key parts of Moyes’ strategy at Everton was creating 2 v 1 and sometimes 3 v 2 situations down the flanks – Leon Osman was particularly useful in this regard when fielded centrally – and there’s something very useful about a central midfielder moving out wide, because the opposition aren’t sure how to track him. Instinctively, central players don’t track opponents when they move out wide, away from the danger zone, but it can leave their teammates in wide positions overloaded.

This was a little like Antonio Valencia’s goal against Arsenal a couple of seasons ago, when Ryan Giggs played the crucial cross despite starting from a central midfield zone – he moved out wide, and none of his direct opponents followed. As teams become increasingly concerned with keeping it tight in central positions, and protecting the ‘red zone’ with two centre-backs and two holding midfielders, central players drifting wide might become more important.

Walker free-kick

Another goal that raises a tactical debate was Walker’s opener, a blasted free-kick under the wall from very close-range.

The problem here was very simple – the wall jumped, and Walker fired underneath. But the position of the free-kick (no more than 20 yards from goal) and the reputation of the free-kick taker (a player who blasts free-kicks, rather than dipping or curling them) surely means the wall should have remained on the ground. If it was Domenico Morfeo, jumping would have made sense – but the wall jumping was Walker’s ideal scenario.


Spurs’ defensive shape was the main discussion point here – while they eventually conceded two goals, United rarely penetrated Tottenham’s lines dangerously, and Villas-Boas will be hugely disappointed that two individual errors cost his side the win.

Spurs didn’t create a great deal themselves, relying on a free-kick and a brilliant long-range Sandro goal, but Lennon’s movement was interesting and Paulinho made things happen from the number ten role. Question marks remain about Soldado’s movement, while Chadli’s cautious performance wasn’t entirely satisfactory considering Spurs’ problem with goalscoring in open play, but it was a big improvement on last week.

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