Evra vs. Lennon was one of the key battles in Tottenham vs. Manchester United
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In Sunday’s big game Man United traveled to White Hart Lane to play Tottenham Hotspur, looking to avenge their 3-2 defeat at Old Trafford earlier in the season. Wintry conditions threatened to postpone the match, but after a late pitch inspection the teams were given the all-clear. Spurs lined up as expected with Defoe and Parker replacing Adebayor (international duty) and Sandro (injured). United made only one change to the team that beat Liverpool last Sunday, but altered their team shape and tactics significantly. As always, we’d love to hear the debate from both sets of fans.
A strong defensive display
Sir Alex’s team selection and tactics showed a lot of respect to Spurs, by drafting in Phil Jones to help out defensively in midfield. With the diminished mobility of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, it also meant that United had to defend far deeper than they have usually done this season with Jonny Evans in the team. This suited the team’s gameplan well, though, as United sought to limit the one-on-one encounters with Bale and Dembele that hurt them so much in September’s reverse fixture. As a result, Spurs had the majority of possession and shots, while United sought to counter quickly as they have done in other ‘big’ away games this campaign.
The gameplan was a success – at least for 92 minutes – and it can fairly be described as United’s best defensive performance of the season. Vidic’s reunion with Rio made a massive difference to the way United handled crosses and set-pieces. For most of the season, the team has looked very vulnerable to aerial balls coming into the box, but yesterday the duo headed almost everything out, clearing everything that came their way – Rio made 7 clearances and Vidic made 8. With cruel irony, it was a cross into the box that led to the Spurs goal.
While Spurs had a lot of shots in the game, many of these came from long distance or around the edge of the box, where Rio (3), Vidic (3) and Jones (2) blocked a fair amount and de Gea (7) saved his fair share. Interestingly the centre-backs only made one tackle between them. Defensively, Jones (3 tackles, 2 interceptions) and Carrick (6 tackles, 4 interceptions) contributed massively as well, with Jones helping Rafael to nullify Bale, and Carrick doing an admirable job against the brawny dribbling of Moussa Dembele. Evra often struggles against Aaron Lennon, and though he did better for most of the game, a lack of support was detrimental later on when Lennon started finding lots of space.
Less strong in attack
Going forward, however, the team lacked some of the verve that propelled them to counter-attacking victories against City and Chelsea earlier in the season. Two shots on target represented the Reds’ lowest tally of the season, and apart from a few fluent moves in the first half and the Rooney penalty shout - which looked a clear penalty, even to Alan Hansen – United surprisingly didn’t offer much in attack. A lot of this was due to the composition of the midfield. Cleverley started off on the left but settled into an odd right-sided role – he provided a fine assist and offered diligent effort, but was less influential than he has been recently from a central position.
Because of his heavier defensive responsibilities, Carrick was less ambitious with his passing, and it was actually Phil Jones, the least comfortable of these three on the ball, who had the most touches and played the most passes. Kagawa was quietly efficient with the ball but was sacrificed for Rooney in the second half. Danny Welbeck had another good game, doing well in the buildup to the goal and threatening with his pace in behind. However, a lot of his good work was done on his own, and he threatened only sporadically. With these changes plus a lack of width – Young was a big miss here, as he would’ve offered balance and more defensive solidity against Lennon and Walker down the left – United looked fragmented going forward.
Subs turn the game – in Spurs’ favour
If anything, the changes made in the second half, with Rooney and Valencia replacing Kagawa and Cleverley , weakened the team’s position and contributed somewhat to the late equaliser. By changing the attacking flow of the team to a more direct approach, it meant that United couldn’t hold on to the ball long enough to ease the building pressure from Spurs. United sat deeper and deeper as the second half wore on, inviting the home team onto them. It was from here that Aaron Lennon really kicked into action, and it was almost inevitable that he played a key part in Spurs’ goal.
It’s hard to criticise Sir Alex for the substitutions that he made, since both Tom and Shinji looked to be tiring, but Rooney and Valencia offered very little after they came on, losing the ball quite often and contributing to a very disjointed-looking final thirty minutes.
A goal, but a rare off-day from Robin
Robin van Persie holds himself to an extremely high standard as you can see in this excellent long interview, and while he scored an excellent header in yesterday’s game, he might well be disappointed with his overall display. Given the way the team was set up, sitting deep, absorbing pressure and looking to hit on the break, Sir Alex would be disappointed with the lack of truly good counterattacking chances generated, especially in the second half. Some of this was down to tactics, and a lot of credit has to go to the excellent Michael Dawson who repelled most of our attacks – but as United’s focal point going forward, van Persie has to shoulder some of the blame.
Caught offside six times (!!) and hardly involved in play in the second half, Robin honestly looked a bit tired, which is understandable after starting almost every Premier League game and only being rested in the FA Cup. Hopefully he’s given another rest in the cup tie against Fulham, perhaps with Rooney having another run-out and Danny Welbeck rewarded for his good form. We need all our strikers are fresh and sharp for the important run of games coming up.
Spurs’ goal: keeper blamed, but a collective failure
Without getting into a big hullabaloo about David de Gea here, it’s safe to say that he bore most of the blame for Spurs’ 92nd-minute equaliser yesterday. A weak punch of his fell straight to Lennon, who squared for Dempsey to put it in. But looking at the buildup to the goal again (and again), we can see that a lot of factors contributed to the concession. First, Rafael runs away from the loose ball after blocking Bale’s shot, leaving Assou-Ekotto free to cross. Next, Vidic clatters de Gea while he tries to punch the ball away – not for the first time, the two clashed when going for the same ball, leading to a goal. Then, impeded, de Gea punches the ball right into the path of Lennon, and in coming out to punch, takes himself out of a position to save the next shot that comes in. Further, Carrick, who was watching Dempsey originally, gets caught ball-watching. Lennon spots it and finds Dempsey who puts it neatly into the corner. An ugly goal, and a collectively ugly goal. Still, it was the least that Spurs deserved.
Of course, it’s never nice to have a win snatched away in the 92nd minute, but it would be churlish to deny that Spurs contributed richly to the spectacle and earned their spoils from the game. Under AVB, they’ve added a balance and resilience to an already exciting mix of attacking talent, and have twice played excellently against United this season, with Dawson and Lennon their standout players this time. Disregarding his public fury about the penalty claim, Sir Alex will be privately pleased with a good defensive performance that will serve the team well for big upcoming games against Real Madrid. Looking at the league title race, United have now played City, Chelsea, Spurs, Liverpool, Everton and Swansea away from home, only dropping 7 points from them. On paper, Stoke and Arsenal look like the hardest away days left. United are 5 clear of City, unbeaten in 11, and have a challenging but manageable run of league fixtures coming up. More obstacles are sure to present themselves, but United should be quietly confident about their position and chances of regaining the Premier League in May.