Tactically Speaking: Manchester United vs Tottenham Hotspur

Posted on August 23, 2011


Manchester United kick-started their home season in fine form as perennial top 6 contenders, Tottenham Hotspur, were dispatched 3-0 with relative ease. Goals from Danny Welbeck, Anderson and Wayne Rooney ensured United’s unbeaten start to the season. United were missing their first choice central defensive pairing and it was upto the young duo of Phil Jones and Johny Evans to shore up the defense along with fellow youngster Chris Smalling, who has remarkably adapted into the right back role. Tottenham were missing their own talisman in Luka Modric, who was left behind in London either to discuss his transfer to Chelsea or just mope around.

The Lineups

The pre-match talk was that the Spurs will try to wing it up against United with Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon expected to do much of the attacking work. Spurs predictably lined up a 4-4-1-1 with Rafael van der Vaart playing off lone striker Jermaine Defoe and youngster Jake Livermore starting in the midfield along with Niko Kranjcar. This is where Harry Redknapp might have missed a trick by not starting Tom Huddlestone. Huddlstone offers a good physical presence in the middle of the field and that is something neither Kranjcar, nor Livermore were able to provide.

United lined up in a classic 4-4-2 with Welbeck partnering Rooney and a young midfield and defense to back them. Sir Alex Ferguson resisted starting the fit again Javier Hernandez instead of the mightily impressive Welbeck and that proved decisive.

The game-plan:

a) Central midfield

As expected, Spurs did wing it up with almost 60% of the attack coming through the wings, especially the left side through Gareth Bale. Kranjcar started well sashaying 45 passes in the first half with a success rate of 77%, but the majority of his game play involved in only directing the ball to the flanks, where either Assou-Ekotto or Bale were usually close by to collect his short passes. The second half saw such a change that Kranjcar was reduced to a mute spectator as United exerted their dominance. In the 30 minutes he played in the second half, the Croat hit only 16 passes as he was completely over-run by United’s midfield. Livermore passed efficiently, but his role required him to sit back and pass the ball forward which he did without being imaginative.

United also moved the ball through the wings but that didn’t mean that the central midfield was completely forgotten. Though United moved the ball predominantly through the wings, 85% of their attacks came through the centre. Nani and Ashley Young were intent on cutting inside from their respective flanks to involve Cleverly and Anderson. United’s central midfield pairing of Tom Cleverly and Anderson were deadly delivering 85 passes between them with 75 of them successful. If your central midfielders pass the ball around with 88% accuracy, then the opposition will definitely be in trouble. And they were, as Cleverly crossed and Welbeck headed in the first goal. By the time the second goal came in, Spurs already looked defeated and one of the main reasons for that was they were completely overrun in the central midfield.

all passes: Anderson & Cleverly


It was one of those days for Gareth Bale. He ran willingly, took on the make shift RB Chris Smalling and often left him in his wake. But all this was usually in the first two-thirds of the pitch, as Phil Jones put in an admirable shift to thwart Bale time and again from delivering a meaningful cross or blocking a  shot. bale only got in a couple of shots- one straight at de Gea and the other shanked wide. But it’s the other Spurs winger I would like to talk about. Aaron Lennon was almost invisible in the second half as exclusively all the Spurs’ attacks were routed through Bale. Lennon was shepherded well by Evra and as a result he could hit only 20 passes in the whole game. Compare this to United’s wing duo of Nani and Ashley Young who attempted 111 passes between them. For all the talks of Spurs winging it up, they ended up out winged by United.


The positional understanding displayed by the United players was borderline frightening. Case in point – consider United’s passing move in the 72nd minute involving Cleverly, Anderson, Young, Rooney, Welbeck and Nani and also their second goal when Welbeck pulled a cheeky back-heel without even looking to set up Anderson. It has to be said that United out-passed their opposition. United strung together 520 passes with a success rate of 83% as compared to Spurs who hit 467 passes with an accuracy of 75%. Defoe struggled as a lone striker and van der Vaart resorted to too many long range strikes as de Gea’s well documented struggles against long range strikes is certain to be attempted to taken advantage of.

Spurs definitely need another striker as Pavlyuchenko and Defoe were not able to play together once the Russian was introduced. Based on this display, Tottenham could be ill-advised to sell Modric as the diminutive Croat’s trickery on the ball and his imaginative passing was sorely missed. That being said Spurs have to thank Brad Friedel for keeping the score down to 3-0.

Final Thoughts:

Shot Zones: Spurs were reduced to speculative long range strikes.

United based on this performance have set the bar really high. Their squad, though depleted by injuries have a settled look amongst them. The youngsters like Welbeck, Evans, Jones, Cleverly and Smalling have settled in the first team quite comfortably. That being said, David de Gea is yet to convince his doubters. His distribution was really good, but his shot stopping is still to be improved. He almost let Defoe score of another spill. Spurs on the other hand have a solid defensive core and one of the most exciting wingers in the PL in Gareth Bale, but they lack a good striker who could give them options. And yeah, they should try their level best to retain the services of Modric.