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Usually when Tottenham come to town, nothing less is expected other than a win. Such has been United’s dominance against Spurs for over 23 years.
Taking both teams on paper, one would come to a similar conclusion except for one small detail. Against a Spurs midfield who boast the mobility, pace, and energy of Dempsey, Dembele, Bale and Sandro, Sir Alex decided to go for experience and pair Scholes with Carrick along with Giggs on the wing. While these three are great players in their own right, questions were definitely asked when the starting lineups came out. A good second half performance was not enough to overcome Sir Alex’s mistake with United’s starting XI as the defensive shape was imbalanced from the beginning. United seemed to lack any gameplan in the first half as we looked disjointed once again. What’s scary is from the starting lineup, it wasn’t so hard to predict.
When it comes to striking a balance between defense and attack, United has well-documented issues. This balance issue has been present for about three years which made it all the more baffling to see a starting XI as we witnessed yesterday. Carrick and Scholes lack mobility and can lead to United becoming stretched in certain games. Gaps appear between the forward line, midfield and defense. As a result, our wingers and attackers became isolated and found it difficult to become involved in the match. It also meant United’s backline wasn’t receiving adequate protection as both Scholes and Carrick were slow to track back and pick up markers properly. Such was the case in the first half where not only our tempo was slow, but we found it difficult to breach Tottenham’s backline and they caught us on the break.
Villas-Boas got his tactics spot on. It’s well known Carrick and Scholes suffer when they don’t have time and space on the ball. However, AVB decided to exploit Sir Alex’s intent for United to play an expansive game instead. Spurs’ midfield didn’t apply pressure until United entered their half. In addition, Sandro and Dembele along with Spurs’ backline ensured Kagawa and Van Persie runs’ were tracked. We tried to force the play wide but it proved to be ineffective as there was little penetration from Giggs or Nani. Giggs had a poor game with only 5 successful passes in the entire first half and contributing little to United’s build-up play. United became rigid in both tempo and movement and so attempted to compensate through pushing higher. Even though the midfield pushed up, United’s backline did not push up high enough to close the gap.
This aspect was instrumental in Bale grabbing the second goal for Tottenham. They won possession deep within their own half, Dembele played it to an onrushing Bale who only saw daylight as he bared down towards United’s goal. There was only going to be one winner between Rio and Bale and the Welsh winger finished admirably to the far post to put Spurs 2-0. It was a bitter pill to swallow but the goal was coming. Lennon had enjoyed a similar run through United’s midfield where Scholes was close enough to make a tackle but Lennon simply glided by him. There were other occasions where United midfield failed to track back leaving our already disorganized backline exposed. This lack of balance also led to conceding the third goal which was just abysmal as the others.
1st goal – Vertonghen scored what proved to be a very soft goal and it was a shame as it was so early on in the match. Nani failed to track his run and as Vertonghen scampered in the box, both Rio and Carrick were slow to close down the space and Evans arrived too late to make any last-ditch tackle count. It was quite lethargic from a defensive standpoint and worrying these schoolboy mistakes were coming from our experienced players.
2nd goal – As I mentioned earlier, Bale was always going to beat Rio in a footrace, especially when Bale had a head start. This goal was due to our midfield getting caught on the break and not having the legs to at least put Bale off from directly running through the open gap between our midfield and backline. Our midfield was nowhere to be seen, Evans was dragged wide by Defoe’s run and Evra was nowhere near to making any sort of tackle.
3rd goal – Again we got caught up high and our slack play allowed Spurs to break on us. Rio should never have allowed Defoe to play that ball from the wing to Bale and no one communicated to Evans that Dempsey was behind. In fact, Carrick was close enough to see the danger but made no immediate motion to prevent the goal or at least put Dempsey off. Some blame could be attributed to Lindegaard parrying it back into danger, but it was a tough shot to handle from Bale though I do think he could have done better.
After such a poor first half, the way we played in the second half must have made some United supporters wonder why we took so long to get into gear. Rooney’s emergence provided more movement and energy and in the space of 6 minutes, United scored their first goal. Spurs seemed happy to sit back and after the 3rd goal, were content with holding out for the win. It enabled Carrick and Scholes to push high and enjoy more of the ball. This also dovetailed with Rooney’s inclusion as Spurs became increasingly tentative as United became more adventurous with their movement.
With shifting Kagawa to the left, he was able to cut in and roam into various pockets of space where Spurs had trouble picking him up. He received the ball more often and was a factor in increasing the tempo and incisiveness of our play. Despite a decent first half, he began to become more of a threat and had a brilliant turn and finish for United’s second. It was strange to see him subbed off and our attack seemed to tail off a bit afterwards. Although Scholes displayed another masterclass in passing, after the 75 minute mark, we didn’t look as penetrative and I pondered the effectiveness of our strategy at that moment in time. We were definitely unlucky not to score a third but I do wonder if putting on Anderson and Cleverley would have made us less predictable.
Villas-Boas loaded the midfield intending to force us wide as he became wary of our play through the middle. Once this occurred, United resorted to pumping crosses into an already congested box. Stats show United had 4 out of 43 attempted crosses and while it doesn’t reflect the final 15 minutes of the match, it does show unsuccessful we were with such an approach. Sir Alex’s substitutions played a factor as we overloaded the box with strikers and hoped to catch a break.
Scholes was great but his passes were mostly in front of Spurs. They were more than happy to deal with those kind of passes but it’s hard to fault him. He couldn’t do much else as his teammates ultimately chose to defer to him even though he was tiring late on. He’s a great distributor of the ball and he’s one of my favorite players, but did we really need him for this match? Especially considering the defensive toll we suffered in the first half. He’s the most talented player we have in midfield but are we using him in the best way for the good of the team? I was unsure of this despite his 2nd half performance. How long will Sir Alex continue to leave Cleverley or Anderson on the bench? I felt bad for them.
Against an energetic midfield, I thought either of those players alongside Carrick would have given us enough energy to cope better than we did in the first half. It’s alarming to see Fergie start our veterans in games they shouldn’t be starting. Playing a 37 year old in central midfield alongside a partner who isn’t very mobile either was always going to be vulnerable to counterattacks. Both Scholes and Giggs should mostly be coming off the bench in games such as this. I feel they will be vital throughout the season, but this was the wrong game for them and United’s backline suffered from the lack of protection.
As we look forward to the upcoming fixtures, it’s important the coaching staff work towards improving our balance. I’d much rather focus on ensuring United are defensively sound as a unit as we already have a wealth of attacking options who are beginning to gel. Sir Alex has made some baffling decisions in the past and he’s done so again against Spurs. Hopefully, he gives both Anderson and Cleverley a chance to prove themselves. It’s strange with the players we have, why we aren’t playing to our strengths and are getting stuck in a style of play and approach which doesn’t necessarily suit the starting XI we put out yesterday. Kagawa and Van Persie both come from teams who play short, quick passing where there’s support coming from midfield. Fans complain about Kagawa not doing enough in the first half, but it’s important to recognize he wasn’t getting enough support from either the wings or midfield. Carrick and Scholes were sitting too deep and even when Kagawa did drop, it did little to add anything more than was there already.
Out of perspective, we are only 6 games into this EPL season and we are ahead of City. Circumstances could certainly be worse but we can find some positives in our approach for most of the 2nd half. Hopefully Sir Alex realizes he can’t afford to start Giggs and Scholes in these types of games, but I wont be surprised to see them both starting at Newcastle. We have some great options that we’ve yet to take advantage of. Most importantly, we need our injury count to go down and get Smalling and Jones back into the mix and sort out how we defend and attack as a unit. It’s a shame we don’t put more teams under pressure. We are certainly capable of it so maybe we will see it implemented later on down the line. For now, it’s getting the 3 points at Cluj and preparing for a tough match at Newcastle. The good thing about matches coming thick and fast, helps to get a bad loss out of the system. Let’s push on from here. We know we’re better and it’s time we start clicking into gear.