Fortress Old Trafford. Not since the 3rd April 2010 have United lost a league home game – winning 20 and drawing 1 in that time. Monday night’s game against Tottenham Hotspur marks the start of the new league season at home and United will be keen to extend that unbeaten home record to a 22nd game.
United started the defence of their title last weekend with a hard-fought win at West Brom whilst Spurs were forced to postpone their game against Everton due to the riots that had taken place in London.
Harry Redknapp brings the Spurs team that finished 5th last year to Old Trafford for their opening league game of the new season. So far this summer Tottenham have been quiet, bringing in Brad Friedel on a free and letting some fringe squad players leave both permanently and on a free. Importantly for Spurs fans, key assets – Modric, Bale and Van der Vaart remain at the club and all are likely to start this game.
Keeping Modric in particular has been something of a test of chairman, Daniel Levy’s resolve. Chelsea’s interest in the diminutive midfielder has been public all summer-long but has been matched by statement after statement from the Spurs hierarchy, determined not to sell and to reassure fans that he’s not for sale at any price.
Spurs do arguably need reinforcements, up front and potentially at the back too. In order to bring them in, selling Modric may be the only option. One player who won’t feature is Emmanuel Adebayor – the striker is close to sealing a loan move from Man City but nothing has been finalised yet.
As per last season then, this is a side with graft, guile and pace who’ll come to try and win at Old Trafford playing entertaining counter-attacking football. Their midfielders are excellent at retaining possession and in Van der Vaart they have a player very adept at drifting between the opposition lines – something that United have struggled with in the past.
The aim for Tottenham this year will be to attempt to get back into the top four but heavy spending from Liverpool looks to ensure that will be far from straightforward once again. Certainly another year outside the Champions League places may make it tricky for Spurs to keep hold of some of their ambitious and talented players.
United started their season with a tough away win at West Brom last weekend. Wayne Rooney looked particularly sharp with new signing Ashley Young impressing and eventually forcing a winning goal. United had periods of intricate quick football that were both exciting and reassuring to watch. However as soon as they slowed the pace down, West Brom were straight in and putting United on the back-foot. It’ll be key for Spurs to not allow United to get into any kind of rhythm, learning from what worked so well for the Albion.
Pre-season went well for United and to date they’ve scored 31 goals in 8 games – 6 pre-season friendlies, the Community Shield and a league game. Goals have been spread around with all of the strikers chipping in and looking sharp.
There’s little to go on for Spurs having not had a league game so far but they played in a Europa League qualifier midweek at Hearts winning 5-0. They adopted their familiar 4-4-1-1 and brought in youngster Jake Livermore who scored their third goal. Whilst United kept a few clean sheets pre-season, the win over Hearts was the first of the season for Tottenham who endured a frustrating summer of friendlies. Two wins, a draw and a defeat with only six goals scored was their preparation for this new season but the midweek result was an encouraging sign.
United are already short at the back this season with injuries to Rafael, Vidic and Ferdinand. Evra is set to return whilst Evans and Jones have been tipped to start at the back. Sir Alex said that Monday will come “too soon” for Ferdinand – it’s not uncommon for that kind of wording to be followed by a surprise appearance! Fletcher, Valencia and Hernandez are all back in training but none of them are ready for a first team appearance yet.
King, Gallas, Pienaar and Hutton are definitely missing for Spurs whilst Crouch is a doubt. Modric missed the midweek game with a groin problem but is set to start. Huddlestone, Sandro, Palacios and Jenas aren’t certainties either but the former did play the last half hour at Hearts.
United formation and starting XI prediction:
Two things have served United well so far this season – hungry youngsters and a 4-4-2 with a fluid, interchanging front four players. It therefore makes little sense that I’d ignore certainly the former of those two things but all shall be explained.
There’s only one decision to make in the defence – to play Fabio or Smalling. Whilst naturally a centre back, Smalling’s had little trouble filling in at right back and has looked both impressive and dangerous. Phil Jones and Jonny Evans finished the West Brom game as the central pairing and Sir Alex has already named them as starters for tomorrow’s game. It was encouraging to see that in the short spell he was on the pitch last weekend, Jones already feels comfortable in the squad – he was barking out orders and encouraging his team-mates to step up their performance; Gary Neville’s tip as a future captain looks a decent bet. It’s also a great chance for Jonny Evans to prove his quality. A difficult 12-18 month period has been navigated past and since April he’s been excellent, this is a key time for him now – billed as one of the best young defenders in the country it’s time to prove Fergie right.
The midfield is the tricky area – the Anderson-Cleverley axis has worked in its brief experiment so far however the demands are different in this game. One of the keys to beating Spurs is ball retention – they’re great in possession but less good, particularly in midfield where they have ‘ball-players’ without it. With that in mind the Carrick-Giggs prediction is fairly possible. They were key to some excellent performances in big games in the latter half of last season and having been rested lately now may be the time to bring them back into the team for the first bigger game of the season.
What will be important is to ensure that Van der Vaart is unable to easily find space between the United defence and midfield – as he did with ease last year. To stop that, Carrick will have to drop deeper and hence selecting Park will enable Carrick to do that so his position is covered. Whilst selecting only one striker is often negative, Young, Nani and Park (given what we saw in pre-season) will all get up to support Rooney and Young or Park in particular may have license to roam and interchange behind the striker.
A five man midfield laden with experience may well be required anyway to protect and counteract the inexperience of a young back four that haven’t played together before for any great length of time. Whilst all of the defenders have quality, as a unit they’re somewhat unknown so going for safety first seems sensible. If the game is tight after an hour then risks can be taken to try and win it.
Smalling vs. Bale – Gareth Bale may have been the subject of hype and the backlash that comes with inflated expectation at times last year, but more often than not he was a danger. He’s only just 22 but already he’s built perfectly for football – broad, strong and quick. His shift from fullback to winger seems the perfect move. He likes to get to the byline on the outside but is equally capable of coming inside onto his weaker foot. He won the PFA Players’ Player of the Year last season and will certainly be a danger in this game.
The obvious battle to pick out might have been a central one given the quality of players Spurs have there but it’s who Bale is up against that makes this the key battle. Smalling is a good player, he had a great first season and has started this one well. However he’s not a right back and he’s not faced a player of Bale’s quality whilst filling in as a fullback yet. Smalling will have to be positionally clever – he can’t commit himself forward as much as he’d like and he can’t afford to get too tight to Bale as the Welsh winger likes to knock the ball past an opponent and run onto it. However, Rafael has had previous success by engaging Bale in physical contact; whilst strong, Bale has previously been bullied off the ball. Smalling tends to like to wait and read the game before cleanly taking the ball, like Ferdinand, therefore Smalling may have to try and change his game in order to win the battle of Bale.
History and last meeting:
Spurs have never won at Old Trafford in the Premier League (although many Spurs fans will cite January 2005 as a win they were robbed of). This will be the 20th meeting of these two sides in this fixture – United average 2 goals a game with Spurs averaging a goal every other game. Spurs have only spoiled the party on three occasions, otherwise United have won every meeting. There have been seven games where United have scored three or more goals against Tottenham whilst they’ve only managed to score more than one goal once, in April 2009.
Last season United won this fixture 2-0 – a powerful header from Vidic and a controversial goal from Nani. He’d handled the ball quite obviously in the build-up but the linesman and referee had missed it and not blown up for a foul but the Spurs goalkeeper, Gomes, decided to self-award a free-kick, rolling the ball out to kick only to find Nani nicking it off him and tapping it into the empty net.
United have started well this season and have played some excellent attacking football at times but arguably haven’t been clinical enough. The current squad looks full of goals but the young defence will surely be tested against an excellent opposition midfield. Therefore I predict a 3-1 United win.
Lee Probert – yet to referee a game this season.
– Spurs last beat United in May 2001 – 24 games have passed since then.
– Not since December 1989 have Spurs won at Old Trafford.
– United are good at making their substitutions count – last season subs scored 11 goals for them, more than any other team.
– United managed only one shot on target last weekend against West Brom.
– Spurs scored more goals from outside the penalty area than any other team last year (15).
– Spurs lost eight games last season, seven of them came on their travels.
The Stretford-End.com team have each given a predicted starting XI and final score ahead of the game – give us yours here.
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