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The first game of the Premier League season matched up Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United against Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham Hotspur. Many supporters looked at this clash and saw it as one which was very suitable for the Barclays Premier League opener. Two managers who favour aggressive high pressure and attacking, proactive football along with a host of quality players on either side made this a tantalizing clash on paper. However, although the game promised much as a spectacle in the end the game was far from tantalizing. Both teams appeared nervy, wary of the ramifications that a poor start to a league season can have.

This, in many people’s minds was the primary reason why this game which appeared so promising was ultimately settled by a Kyle Walker own goal. United were solid, compact and defended resolutely throughout; Tottenham struggled to deal with this throughout and often times came unstuck which in my mind was the key to United’s victory.


Man United Spurs Tactics

Man Utd (4-2-3-1): 20. Romero // 36. Darmian, 12. Smalling, 17. Blind, 23. Shaw // 16. Carrick, 28. Schneiderlin // 8. Mata, 7. Depay, 18. Young // 10. Rooney

Tottenham (4-2-3-1): 13. Vorm // 2. Walker, 4. Vertonghen, 5. Alderweireld, 33. Davies // 15. Dier, 6. Bentaleb // 19. Dembele, 23. Eriksen, 22. Chadli // 10. Kane

Substitutions: 60’ Schweinsteiger (Carrick), 68’ Herrera (Depay), 81’ Valencia (Darmian)

Utd’s compact defensive shape, superb pressing

Tottenham threatened United on occasion but for the most part they were rock solid in defence, defending in a compact 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 medium block when out of possession. There was nothing particularly groundbreaking about the formation they deployed in the defensive phase; it was more down to the remarkable compactness they exhibited for the majority of the game. They maintained said compactness vertically and horizontally ensuring space between the lines was limited therefore Spurs were unable to find pockets of space and the centre was controlled obligating them to play wide.

Utd’s 4-4-2 medium block, Depay moves from 10 to become 2nd ST

Utd’s 4-4-2 medium block, Depay moves from 10 to become 2nd ST

In the above diagram is an example of Utd’s compact shape in Spurs’ build-up phase. The presence of inverted wingers, Young and Mata was essential as it allowed United’s midfield to come narrower in defensive phases, congesting the space in the middle of the park. Key to stopping Spurs’ progression into midfield however was the positioning of Rooney and Depay in Tottenham’s 6 space. It seemed obvious that Spurs would use Bentaleb as their primary outlet for circulating the ball as his partner Eric Dier has never been a proficient ball player. Aware of this, it was clear that Louis van Gaal instructed his two frontmen to block passing lanes into midfield instead of pressing the CBs in possession, which is often futile when playing against centre backs with sufficient technical ability.

The presence of Rooney and Depay ensured there was no numerical superiority for Spurs in the 6 space; as a result they were unable to bring the ball into the next phase with any facility. It was often congested in that area and they had no option but to play the ball long out wide to Chadli or up front to Kane. At times Dembele and Eriksen were obligated to drop ridiculously deep which had a knock-on effect in the last two phases of the Spurs attack as they were underloaded in the final 3rd and Harry Kane was left isolated.

Eriksen heat map via WhoScored. He roamed a fair amount and was required to drop deep

Eriksen heat map via WhoScored. He roamed a fair amount and was required to drop deep

United’s set up and pressing proved effective in nullifying Bentaleb and the Tottenham team as a whole. He was at fault for the goal, conceding possession cheaply and by end of the game only completed 30/38 (78.9%) of his passes in total, a paltry return for a player who is normally expected to dictate possession for his team.

In his defence, he was not helped at all by Tottenham’s complete inability to maintain a compact shape and provide short passing options for the man in possession. Primarily looking to transition as fast as possible and exploit the space in the channels, they seemed to almost be oblivious to the fact that compactness is required when attempting to create counter attacking opportunities as it makes them difficult to break down and the opposition more likely to lose possession, allowing them to capitalize.

Tottenham’s poor compactness without ball.

Tottenham’s poor compactness without ball.

The next image illustrates Tottenham’s inability to maintain a compact shape. Here, both teams are in transition and United are in possession. Spurs are very slow in regaining shape and allow United to overload the midfield with relative ease. United have a 3 v 2 in midfield and Tottenham’s double pivot has been left ridiculously exposed. This would not have been an issue had they been compact in the previous phase of the game, they would have been defensively secure as the midfield area would have been less spacious and United would have been forced wide instead of being allowed such easy access to the centre.

Utd shape without ball. Good example of how to be compact.

Utd shape without ball. Good example of how to be compact.

The difference between the two sides in terms of compactness when defending was enormous. By comparing both the images it is very clear to see how much better drilled United were than Spurs defensively. Van Gaal’s men kept their shape superbly throughout the contest, space between the lines was minimal and they pressed collectively, increasing their chance of winning the ball back substantially.

Spurs also seemed incapable of maintaining compactness in possession as well as without. This had a very detrimental effect on their ability to maintain possession as at frequent points in the game as the man on the ball was left without a short passing option and ultimately had to play a long ball up field. This lack of cohesion and tightness was partly down to United’s shape congesting space in the centre and Spurs’ own ineptitude.

Spurs’ lack of compactness & short passing options in possession

Spurs’ lack of compactness & short passing options in possession

In this image, Kyle Walker is in possession with Bentaleb and Eriksen partially in support. He has a couple of passing options; however he is faced with two problems. One of these problems is that United have an overload in midfield, along with Rooney and Depay who have dropped off. Another problem is Eriksen’s positioning. Although he is in space and between the lines, he is isolated in the centre as his team are being overloaded in that zone. His body position is also problematic as he is only facing towards the active side of the field (the area currently being occupied by his team in possession).

If he were in a diagonal position, his field of view would be much greater and he would be able to switch the play, possibly unsettling the United defensive block. As is seen by the arrow, he also has the option of moving closer to Walker to create combinations in the wide area. However, in the end he neither changes his body position nor moves closer to Walker and Tottenham lose possession.

Utd overloading right side, forcing Spurs to play long ball

Utd overloading right side, forcing Spurs to play long ball

Spurs seemed to find a lot of joy down United’s left hand side, with Kane frequently drifting into the channels down that side. On occasion it threatened the United defence with Smalling’s brilliance saving his side a number of times. Tottenham could not exploit the space down that side for much longer as van Gaal was quick to react and ordered his side to attempt to overload that side, forcing Spurs to switch play to the other side.

In this image United have attempted to overload Spurs’ favoured side in this game and have done so successfully, Spurs have attempted to counter this by pushing more players toward that side, as is seen by Chadli coming in from the left. However they are unable to play through the right and instead attempt to switch the play, giving possession back to United. What was also important in forcing Spurs to change the point of their attack was the positioning of the United players who were able to shut off multiple passing options at a time. In the image we can see Chadli and Eriksen between the lines, however they have been rendered useless in this phase of the game by Young and Carrick who have both placed them in their cover shadows (red shade) meaning their passing lanes have been blocked off. At the same time Carrick has access to Dembele in the half space and Young can put pressure on Walker out wide should he receive the ball. Spurs were forced to play the long ball on numerous occasions and for large stretches of the game could not maintain possession.

United one-dimensional in attack, struggle to create chances

As good as they were in defence, United can count themselves lucky that they were able to score from the one clear cut opportunity they had on goal, albeit from a Kyle Walker own goal. Against a Spurs side who are notorious for being shaky defensively, it was expected that United with stars such as Depay, making his debut, Rooney and Mata, would at least be able to open up Spurs one more than one occasion as they did in the 3-0 trouncing in March. However, they looked incapable of breaking down this Tottenham Hotspur side for much of the contest. It seemed as though Ashley Young was the main outlet for this United side, frequently drifting wide and isolating Kyle Walker before swinging in cross after cross. Why United as a team persisted with this tactic despite not having an aerial threat remains a mystery as by the end of the game he completed 0 out of the 6 crosses he attempted.

With Rooney at times coming deeper despite being in the number 9 role, it seemed at times that United were lacking depth and penetration in attack. One would assume that Memphis Depay could have provided that. However being stationed in the no.10 role forced him to take on a creative mantle. I feel his explosiveness was sorely missed in this game and his ability to combine with players in the middle when he cuts in from the left would have been very useful against this Spurs side. An example of this came in the first half when he cut in from the right and combined with Rooney and later played in Young who was through on goal but attempted to square.

Playing Memphis out wide in my opinion would be more useful as he can make runs into the centre without being so easily picked up as he would be when in the middle. Coming in from the left also allows him to drag the full-back out of position and create space for his full-back. His direct running and ability to beat players would have also been useful; playing him in the no.10 role stifles this to an extent as he often finds space hard to come by when faced against a double pivot. A more nimble player such as Mata would have been much more useful in my mind.

It also felt like play broke down too often for United at times in the final third and at times they struggled to create attacking overload. The pairing of Carrick and Schneiderlin may be to blame here as despite being superb this match, played very similar roles. They both looked to receive the ball from the centre backs, aid ball circulation and link the midfield and defence. However neither did much beyond that and the similarity of their roles made United a bit predictable at times, they lacked a deep-lying playmaker a la Herrera or a box-to-box midfielder in the Schweinsteiger mould, and it came as no surprise that United looked slightly more dangerous when those two entered the fray with Schweinsteiger looking to play the incisive pass on more than one occasion.

This was something United did not do enough during the game. At times Depay struggled to link the midfield and attack in the no.10 role, which begs the question why he started the game there in the first place. They struggled to create chances and in the end created 4 chances in total as opposed to Tottenham’s 7.

Where does this leave them?

Slender as the victory may have been, United can be satisfied to come away with the three points. With the new signings still yet to bed in and more apparently on the way United fans have every reason to be excited about their title hopes this forthcoming season.

Spurs also showed promise in this game, their leaky defence from last season looks to be no worse due to the acquisition of Toby Alderweireld shoring up the back 4. They can also take solace in the fact that they performed a lot better than in the 3-0 demolition at Old Trafford last season. Top 4 still looks unlikely but with a new found security at the back, Eriksen’s creativity and dead ball expertise along with Harry Kane’s goal-scoring exploits, Spurs can have a degree of optimism about their top 4 prospects.


Miles Olusina

Miles is a 19 year-old writer and aspiring manager with a fascination for tactics and the psychological side of the game. He is an avid Manchester United supporter and follower of Barcelona
Miles Olusina

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