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The Tactics Board- MUFC 2-3 Tottenham: Overrun Midfield limits comeback

Manchester United came into this game looking to continue a good run of results, if not necessarily good form. Tottenham Hotspur came into this game with Andres Villa-Boas still not getting the results that Spurs fans have been hoping. Another slow start by Manchester United allowed the Spurs to gain a lead 2 minutes into the game. United’s performance in the first half was truly shocking, as they lacked fire and effort, and Tottenham was able to overrun an aging Red Devil midfield.

Going in at halftime down 2-0, the Manchester United team that came out in the second half looked nothing like the shambolic team that struggled in the first half. Replacing Ryan Giggs with Wayne Rooney, the Red Devils were able to dominate possession and press the Spurs deeper into their own end. A flurry of 3 goals in 3 minutes early in the second half reduced United’s deficit to 1 and while the Red Devils attack looked potent during the second half, Tottenham defended valiantly and denied United the tying goal.

Manchester United vs. Tottenham Hotspur

Old Trafford – September 29th 2012

Game Setup

Manchester United (4-4-1-1)
Sir Alex Ferguson’s team came out in a similar formation that they’ve used several times this season, making one change over the team that beat Liverpool a week earlier. Fergie opted to play a 4-4-1-1, with injuries forcing him to play an older midfield than should be played against a strong, quick team like Tottenham.

In goal, Anders Lindegaard got his 4th league start in a row. The start for Lindegaard was surprising as Tottenham aren’t known as a physical team up front, so the threat from set pieces and crosses was minimal. This seemed like an ideal game for David De Gea, and his shot stopping ability could have come in handy. Rafael started his 5th league game in a row at right-back, as he is beginning to make the right-back position his own. Patrice Evra got the start at left-back, and he also wore the captain’s armband as Nemanja Vidic is out for almost 2 months after knee surgery. With Vidic missing at center-back, Fergie started Jonny Evans alongside Rio Ferdinand.

Starting in the central midfield, Michael Carrick started alongside Paul Scholes. Antonio Valencia suffered a training injury, joining Ashley Young in the treatment room, but this left United with little cover out on the wing. Nani got the start out on the right wing, his preferred position, while Ryan Giggs started on the left wing. While a midfield of Carrick, Scholes, and Giggs wasn’t ideal against the Spurs, United had few other choices.

Even though Wayne Rooney was fit again after the injury he suffered in the second game of the season, Sir Alex Ferguson decided to start Robin Van Persie up front with Shinji Kagawa operating in the playmaker role behind the lead striker

Fergie set his team up in a 4-4-1-1, hoping to use this formation to dominate possession and stretch Tottenham’s defense. The central midfielders are expected to sit deep, moving the ball laterally while occasionally getting forward to into the penalty area. The central attacking midfielder operates as the primary playmaker, operating between the opponent’s lines and linking up with the lone striker. Defensively, this team drops back into two lines of 4, with the central playmaker typically dropping into the midfield to ensure they don’t get overwhelmed.

Starting Formation

Tottenham Hotspur (4-2-3-1)
Andres Villa-Boas’ squad is starting to gel after a number of new arrivals near the end of the transfer window. A 2-1 victory last week over Queen Park Rangers has started to convince the team of his strategy, which includes his preferred formation, the 4-2-3-1, which he played again in his visit to Old Trafford.

After acquiring Hugo Lloris for £12m near the end of the transfer window, many expected him to immediately become the starting goalkeeper, but Andres Villa-Boas has instead stuck with Brad Friedel. The 41 year old American has played very well for Tottenham this year, and AVB has decided to keep him in net. Kyle Walker started at right-back, a position he’s made his own over the past season, while Benoit Assou-Ekotto’s injury caused Jan Vertonghen to switch from playing center-back to start the game at left-back. The center-backs AVB decided to start was 20-year old Steven Caulker and 35-year old William Gallas.

The starting deep central midfielders were Sandro, a Brazilian defensive midfielder, and Moussa Dembele, who caused United problems in the second game of the season when he played for Fulham. This setup allows Tottenham to keep one midfielder deep as a defensive shield, while the other gets forward on the attack. Further forward, Gareth Bale started on the left wing while Aaron Lennon started on the right wing. Centrally, newly acquired Clint Dempsey started in the central attacking midfield. Supporting the team as the lone striker, Jermain Defoe got the start again ahead of Emmanual Adebayor.

The 4-2-3-1 is used with two deep lying central midfielder who protect the center-backs while also offering the team midfielders in a deep position to help control possession. Further forward there are 3 attacking midfield options, with Tottenham preferring to use 2 wingers with a central attacking midfielder operating in the middle behind the lone striker. Defensively, the two wide attacking midfielders will frequently drop back alongside the deep central midfielders, meaning that this team functions as a 4-4-1-1 on defense.

Key Points-

  • Another poor start for Manchester United left them dealing with a 2 goal deficit.
  • Gareth Bale caused problems throughout the game with his pace while Vertonghen caused problems as he got forward.
  • Starting Carrick, Scholes, and Giggs was a poor choice against the a stronger, quicker Spurs midfield
  • Bringing on Rooney in the second half allowed United to take control of the game
  • 3 goals in 3 minutes reduced Tottenham’s lead to 1 goal.
  • Scholes put on a passing master class in the second half


Tottenham takes charge early

Manchester United came into this game ill prepared to deal with Tottenham’s strength and pace. While United struggled in the midfield, where Tottenham found success early on in the game was out on the left wing. Everybody knows about the pace of Gareth Bale, and Rafael had a tall assignment in this game of trying to defend against Gareth Bale, but the first problem for United came from Jan Vertonghen. Acquired from Ajax to play center-back, the injury to Benoit Assou-Ekotto forced Villas-Boas to play the Belgian at left-back. He has played very well at center-back for Tottenham this year, defending well, but as left-back he had much more license to get forward. This caused a problem for the Red Devils, as Rafael had his hands full trying to defend Gareth Bale, it was left to Nani to get back and help defensively to track Vertonghen’s runs.

In the second minute, Tottenham was able to score due to poor marking by Nani. Vertonghen played a quick one-two out wide with Gareth Bale, and continued his run inside after Nani did a poor job getting back to mark him. As Vertonghen neared the net, he was able to avoid Carrick and Ferdinand before taking a shot that deflects off Jonny Evans and gets past Lindegaard to give an early lead.

In addition to some impressive attacking runs, Vertonghen was equally impressive defensively.  Manchester United didn’t offer much of an attacking threat to worry Tottenham in the first half, but in the second half, Vertonghen was pressured heavily down the right side.

Tottenham was able to control the game throughout the first half, as Manchester United came into the game playing very poorly. They were extremely lax defensively, slow to put pressure on the ball and this allowed Tottenham time on the ball. On the wings, United’s fullbacks gave both Bale and Lennon space. This space ensured that they couldn’t use their pace to get by them, but this allowed them time on the ball to pick out a pass.

Midfield strength leads to Spurs control

Tottenham attacked well throughout the first half, even though Manchester United had the possession advantage throughout the entire game. Tottenham’s ability to control the first half came down to the strength of their midfield, against the weakness of the Red Devils. Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to start Michael Carrick, Paul Scholes, and Ryan Giggs left United with little pace and strength to compete against a Tottenham midfield that included Sandro, Aaron Lennon, Gareth Bale, and Moussa Dembele.

In front of Sandro and Dembele, Clint Dempsey played as the central attacking midfielder, but when Tottenham had the ball, he would frequently drop deep to get on the ball and this caused Tottenham to struggle to generate an effective attack centrally. As Dempsey drops deep, he was fairly closely marked by Paul Scholes. Sandro would stay deep, focusing primarily on his defensive duties and this allowed Shinji Kagawa to effectively mark him from his position up the pitch. Moussa Dembele played in a more box-to-box role, as he would stay fairly deep but he was always willing to make the same type of strong forward runs that he used so effectively against United when he played for Fulham. Michael Carrick was left to deal with Dembele as he came forward, and he struggled to deal with the big Belgian. United’s midfield struggled throughout the game defensively.

Tottenham’s strength in the midfield led them to look the more potent side throughout the first side, even though United had more possession. They controlled the game through the midfield, but they struggled to create chances once United’s defense set up. They had more success when they were able to break forward on a disorganized United defense, as evident in the 32nd minute when Bale was able to get the ball and take on Rio Ferdinand one on one. He came forward against Ferdinand, who struggled to deal with his pace. As he neared the 18 yard box, Jermain Defoe made a great dummy run across to drag Jonny Evans out of position and this opened the door for Bale to take the shot, and give Tottenham a 2-0 lead.

Struggling United attack

Manchester United struggled on defense, and struggled even more on offense. Their offense looked slow, and lacked any invention in their play. Tottenham did a good job to shut them down, not allowing them any space to operate and United helped Tottenham’s defense in several ways.

Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes stayed very deep, and they were pressured very effectively by Jermain Defoe and Clint Dempsey. Tottenham allowed Scholes and Carrick very little time on the ball, and did a good job shutting them out of the game throughout the first half, which is surprising since they completely failed to do the same during the second half. Shinji Kagawa was nearly completely marked out of the game during the first half by Moussa Dembele, who man-marked the Japanese international throughout the first half. Sandro maintained his defensive position in front of the center-backs, but Dembele followed Kagawa and didn’t allow him any space to operate, and he had very little effect on the game in the first half. Both of Spurs central midfielders did a very good job defensively, and this shut United down through the middle of the pitch.

One of the biggest problems for Manchester United’s attack in the first half came on the left wing from Ryan Giggs. As has been the habit of Ryan Giggs lately when he plays on the left wing, he played extremely narrow and offered United’s attack very little width on the left side. This made the defensive job much easier for Spurs, as they were able to congest the middle of the pitch and stop United’s attacks before they could get started. Spurs defense was able to prevent United from registering any shots during the first half.

Second Half Formation

About face

After going into the half down by two goals, Sir Alex Ferguson made one change but it changed the entire complexion of the game. Wayne Rooney was brought on for Ryan Giggs and Manchester United changed their formation to a 4-3-3. Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes stayed in their roles as deep central midfielders, while Shinji Kagawa continued to operate high up the pitch as the trequartista. Up front, Wayne Rooney took the place as the central striker and Robin Van Persie moved out to the left wing, while Nani stayed at right wing. While these may be the positions they started, that doesn’t tell the whole story. Throughout the game, Rooney, Van Persie, and Nani would constantly switch positions. With all three capable of playing all three forward positions, they were very effective at moving around and swapping positions. This caused problems for Tottenham’s defense, as they struggled to figure out who to mark with the constant movement.

The movement of Rooney and Van Persie led to United’s first goal in the 51st minute, as Wayne Rooney popped up on the right side. He played the ball to Nani, who flicked it to Robin Van Persie while continuing his run into the box. With both Van Persie and Rooney on the edge of the 18 yard box on the right side, Tottenham’s defense struggled. Steven Caulker, one of the center backs, was well out of position marking Van Persie, as he played the ball forward to Rooney, who played a low cross into the box. The cross was met by Nani, who got behind Vertonghen and into the space vacated by Caulker, and the Portuguese winger was able to poke it in past Brad Friedel.

Even though United were starting to take more control of the game, with their attack looking livelier, Tottenham remained dangerous. Immediately following United’s goal, Tottenham was able to strike back on the counter attack. Recovering the ball in their own zone, they were quick to play the ball forward. Sandro played a long diagonal ball to Jermain Defoe on the left touchline. Marked by Rio Ferdinand, Defoe was eventually able to free himself and play a through ball to Bale, who made a great run behind Rafael and in front of Jonny Evans. He took a shot inside the penalty area that Lindegaard was able to get to, but unfortunately he deflected it back into the middle of the penalty area and Clint Dempsey was the first player to it, and he was able to easily put it in the net.

With Tottenham recovering their 2 goal led, United struck back to reduce the lead to only 1 again. Straight off the restart, United immediately went on the attack. Scholes passed up to Carrick, who quickly played it up to Rooney, who flicked it centrally for Robin Van Persie. Van Persie received the ball, and turned with it and ran at the defense. He was able to avoid a clumsy challenge by Clint Dempsey, and pass the ball into the 18 yard box for Shinji Kagawa. Kagawa received the ball and split Tottenham’s center backs before tucking the ball just inside the right post.

United dominate the ball

After an incredible energetic period of 3 goals in 3 minutes, the game started to settle as United was able to increasingly take control of this game. Tottenham had the choice between settling deep to defend against Rooney, or pressure Scholes and Carrick up the pitch. They opted to sit deeper and try to close down Rooney and Van Persie, and this left Scholes with space and time to operate.

Paul Scholes put on a true master class in the second half, as he was able to sit near the halfway line and play his quality diagonal balls out to the wings. He was able to complete 17 long balls throughout the game, and Tottenham decided to settle deep and give Scholes the time to operate. He was able to take complete control of the game with his passing, as Tottenham struggled to get any time on the ball now.

In addition to Paul Scholes great performance in the second half, Shinji Kagawa had a much better second half. Moussa Dembele changed his tactics, playing in front of the center-backs instead of man-marking Kagawa as he did through most of the first period. This gave Kagawa space to operate, and he drifted laterally to find space between Tottenham’s lines and United did a good job of finding him in these spaces, and they created a couple of good scoring opportunities.

Manchester United controlled the second half, and they had several close calls. They were able to hit the post once, the cross bar once, and a Robin Van Persie goal got called back for off-sides, but as the game went along, Tottenham started to defend deeper. Towards the end of the second half, Tottenham had 6 players defending in their back line. This congested the penalty area, and United struggled to find the space for a game tying goal.

Manchester United’s right side definitely looked the most dangerous side for United, as Nani looked very lively through the second half. Even though he struggled through the first half, the ball was frequently played out wide to Nani when the Red Devils struggled to create scoring opportunities. His attack was helped by Rafael’s rampaging forward runs. These attacks also had a secondary effect of pinning both Bale and Vertonghen deep, not allowing them the chance to get forward on the counter attack.

No come-back this time

United’s attack looked very dangerous, but Tottenham’s defense was able to hold them off. Scholes was playing the ball from side to side, as United looked to find a gap in Tottenham’s defense to exploit. Rooney, Van Persie, and Nani were effective shifting positions in the front, but they were never really able to get the ball in a good position in the penalty area. Rooney and Van Persie started to drop off into the midfield to get the ball, and this opened up some spaces as defenders were pulled out of position, but United was never able to take advantage of it.

As the game wore on, Fergie opted to take of Shinji Kagawa and replace him with Danny Welbeck. Welbeck took Rooney’s position up front, and Rooney dropped off into a deeper role, but he struggled to create as effectively as the Japanese international did. In the final minutes of the game, Fergie made another change and took of Rio Ferdinand and put on Javier Hernandez. This meant that Manchester United were playing with 4 strikers on the field, but they struggled to create the chances at the end to tie the game, as Tottenham were defending with 6 players in their back line.


Many Manchester United fans have gotten used to the fact that no matter what, the team can always pull off a come-back but they were unable to recover from the early deficit this time. Extremely poor play in the first half left United with too big a gap to recover from. Poor squad selection from Sir Alex Ferguson didn’t help, as picking Carrick, Scholes, and Giggs to play against a lineup that is as strong and quick as Tottenham was never a good idea. The Red Devils were limited by injuries, but playing Ryan Giggs was obviously a mistake.

Passes (L- 1st Half; R- 2nd Half)

Tottenham looked in complete control throughout the first half, even though they only managed around 40% possession. Their control and domination of the first half made it appear they had considerably more of the ball. They looked very dangerous down the left side, with Gareth Bale combining with Jan Vertonghen to score the first goal. In addition to a very dangerous looking Vertonghen, Moussa Dembele was another dangerous attacking threat. His strength and power getting forward from the midfield caused repeated problems for United’s defense.

Going in at halftime with a 2-0 lead, it looked as though Tottenham were on their way to a very comfortable victory, but the United team that took the pitch in the second half bore little resemblance to the team that played the opening 45 minutes. The Red Devils were able to completely dominate the second half, limiting Tottenham to only 35 completed passes. United’s attack looked impressive throughout the second half, as Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie presented a very dangerous attack, supplied by Shinji Kagawa. The fluid front three of Rooney, Van Persie, and Nani presented Tottenham with numerous problems, as they were constantly shifting positions and moving around the pitch to disrupt and confuse the Spurs defense. Both United goals in the second half were setup by the effective movement of the front three, but Tottenham’s defense eventually solidified and prevented United from scoring the tying goal they worked so hard to get. This was the 5th league match this season where the opposition scored first on United, and how often can you come from behind before you fail?

By RangeRooney

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