The openness of Mauricio Pochettino’s formation is both the gift and the curse as our Premier League clash finishes Man Utd 1-0 Spurs at Old Trafford.
There was a lot in this performance to be excited about. The way Spurs pressed to open the game, controlled the tempo, possession, all whilst generating the better scoring chances. It wasn’t one-way, there was also concern with how reckless turnovers of the ball resulted in us being caught wildly out of position and open to attack. The score may have ended Man Utd 1-0 Spurs, but there was plenty to get our teeth in to.
Everything stemmed from just how open our formation was. Last season we saw Mauricio Pochettino experiment with a number of tactics, but then regress, as he didn’t feel he had the players to carry out his instructions.
This term he is starting off doing it his way and it began with an extremely open formation. The centre backs were split very wide, much wider than last season, in to the full back positions when Michel Vorm had the ball. This allowed both base midfielders to drop in and form a back three at times, but more importantly pushed the full backs way up in to aggressive attacking positions.
This in turn allowed the three advanced midfielders to be aggressive in running off central striker Harry Kane. Nacer Chadli and Christian Eriksen were buzzing between the lines as they sought to run the inside channels beyond the striker. Mousa Dembele on the other side was seeking to drift in and overload the centre when we had the ball, then close down Michael Carrick when Man Utd got on it.
Last season we were humbled 3-0 by Man Utd as we dropped off and showed them too much respect.
This time Mauricio Pochettino had the side get about them from the off. The front four of Harry Kane, Nacer Chadli, Christian Eriksen and Mousa Dembele didn’t give Man Utd’s defenders and keeper time to build from the back.
Pochettino had learnt an important lesson here. Last season’s match saw Michael Carrick dictate the game from the base of United’s midfield. This time our head coach wasn’t going to let him settle and had Mousa Dembele close Carrick down every time Man Utd tried to move the first pass out of defence in to him.
This reduced Carrick’s influence on the game and also caused errors. Man Utd goalkeeper Sergio Romero’s chipped pass out for a throw being one of the best examples of him not having an out ball and rushed in to an error.
Man Utd’s congested centre
We looked in the 5 keys to Man Utd vs Spurs at how the Red Devils congest the centre of their defence in order to pressure the ball carrier. This is effective if the man in possession doesn’t think quickly enough, but if he does, it leaves space for others down the outside to exploit.
Our best passage of play came when we combined our pressing and negated Man Utd congesting the centre after just five minutes. Winning the ball back from a Romero clearance out to Juan Mata, Harry Kane was surged upon by four Man Utd defenders. However, Kane’s speed of thought to lob the ball over them for Eriksen set the Dane in.
Eriksen cushioned the ball superbly on his head, but just lobbed it over the bar as Romero rushed from his line.
The clues were there though and it continued throughout the game. Eriksen turned provider to lob the ball over the top of the congested centre for Walker to jet on to and fire a shot.
Eriksen then almost set Harry Kane in again as his speed of thought beat the three Man Utd defenders in the centre, but Kane was called offside.
Kane and Eriksen were at the heart of navigating the congestion that Man Utd were trying to cause in the centre. However, Nacer Chadli was also getting in to some really good positions with his stealthy movement drifting in from the left. Unfortunately, he was either not found or the ball just couldn’t be moved to him.
The first example was after yet another good press saw the ball won back and moved out to Harry Kane. Chadli had seen the turnover and slipped in to the centre unmarked, only for Kane to take a shot on.
Mousa Dembele then tried to find him with a searching through ball for his run in-behind. Unfortunately it was cut out; otherwise Chadli would’ve been clean through.
After the interval and Chadli had drifted across the formation in to another wide-open space. This time Kane saw his pass blocked. Man Utd managed to use their central congestion tactic to send three men towards the ball and snuff out what would’ve created a wide-open chance.
In the dying minutes, Chadli did finally get his chance. Once more, Man Utd had a ton of players congesting the centre to put pressure on the ball and force it wide. Lamela duly found Chadli but his squared pass across the box missed everyone and the chance was gone.
Learning from his mistakes at Old Trafford last season, Mauricio Pochettino had set us up extremely well to deal with a Louis van Gaal side. Denying the ball in to Michael Carrick caused them problems all game due to the 4-1-1-4 formation that the Red Devils adopt in the attacking phase. We’d looked at this set up in the 5 keys to Man Utd vs Spurs and how van Gaal pushes up his wider forwards, then has his number ten, join the central striker for a cross or through ball.
Marouane Fellaini destroyed us last season from moving up the field from the number ten position. This time the factors of denying Carrick time and space, along with having two big, physical ball winners at the base of our midfield and Memphis’ lack of aerial power combined to slow down the Red Devils’ attack.
Man Utd did create some limited chances in the game, but their best efforts, and their goal, came from our sloppy passing errors. Giving the ball carelessly away saw our open formation gift them the space to attack.
Both Bentaleb and Dier were guilty of the two worst examples. Morgan Schneiderlin gobbled up Dier’s pass from his position in-between the extremely wide split centre backs. He in turn found Juan Mata, but the Spaniard shanked his shot wide of the post.
Nabil Bentaleb wasn’t as fortunate to get away with his glaring miscue. The Algerian had misplaced a couple of passes in the game, but his gift to Juan Mata couldn’t have been at a worse time. The formation was completely vulnerable with him travelling across the field and passing the ball straight to Mata, which set Man Utd off in to acres of space.
The full backs were caught high up the pitch, Dier at defensive midfield was out of the play and Mata was straight on our centre backs. He sent the ball out wide to Ashley Young who peeled off from the centre forward’s position. Young’s cross found Rooney and Kyle Walker, who had made a lung-bursting run back from the halfway line, put the ball in to our net. It was a shame as Walker had done the hard part of making up the ground and getting himself in to a decent position to challenge. For some reason he went with his off-foot and nicked the ball past the stranded Michel Vorm to make it Man Utd 1-0 Spurs.
The goal knocked us on to the back foot and Man Utd came more and more in to the game. They didn’t have a shot on target in the first half and this was testament to the good work that we had done to shut their formation down.
Man Utd 1-0 Spurs overall
A loss at Old Trafford isn’t usually hard to take as we’ve often been second best on our visits there. However, given the way we dominated large parts of this match and the tactics Mauricio Pochettino used, it was gut wrenching to not even take a point from this game.
The pressing and closing down was calculated and excellently deployed. The movement of the ball was often intelligent and the angle of attack swiftly altered by a diagonal cross-field pass. Toby Alderweireld was a chief exponent of this with his switches from right to left. On top of this, our wide-splitting centre backs were wearing Man Utd’s forwards down, so much so that Juan Mata had to be treated for cramp.
Overall, the openness of Mauricio Pochettino’s formation was a real statement of intent of what we are going to see this season. It was responsible for a lot of the good work that we saw here, but it will lead to some more harum-scarum moments where errors leave it wildly exposed.
Final score: Man Utd 1-0 Spurs.