Man Utd 1-0 Spurs: the open formation gift and curse

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.

Open formation

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.


Centre backs split extremely wide.

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.

Pressing matters

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.


Spurs press with Dembele closing down Carrick.

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.


Man Utd congest the centre, but Kane lobs the ball over.

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 lobs the ball over the central congestion to Walker..

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.


Eriksen feeds Kane in.

Nacer Chadli

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.


Chadli wide open as Kane shoots.

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.


Kane fails to find Chadli.

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.


Lamela beats the central congestion to find Chadli.


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.


Man Utd’s 4-1-1-4 formation.

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.

Passing errors

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.


Bentaleb gifts the ball to Mata.

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.

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24 Responses to Man Utd 1-0 Spurs: the open formation gift and curse

  1. freeflow12 10th August 2015 at 6:10 pm #

    Been waiting for this, but a lot of fans complaining about our attack,slow and lack of pace .. Kane isolated .. Bentaleb not good enough .. Toby is class. And what do you think about the performance of Eriksen and Dembele in that game?

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 10th August 2015 at 11:47 pm #

      Thanks Freeflow12. I thought both Eriksen and Dembele did the jobs that they were assigned to do very well. I was quite impressed by Eriksen’s closing down which is the weakest part of his game. Dembele is excellent defensively but offers little going forward, but Poch wanted that here to close down Carrick.

      Some will complain about slow attack, but the team are just off preseason. Therefore fitness is not at 100%, plus it was an extremely hot day so hard to level that criticism, give it a few weeks for them to get up to speed.

      Don’t understand the Bentaleb haters, most fans full of praise for him and Mason last season. He’s still a kid and one game doesn’t make him not good enough.

    • Antony Perry 11th August 2015 at 8:47 am #

      Bentaleb cost us goals and maybe games last season through sloppy, lazy passes and we would have hoped would pay more attention to this part of his game.

      So here we are first game of a new season and he does it again, sorry this is not excusable.

      I understand your desire to be positive however it was very noticeable that our intensity dropped after the gaol and only came alive again in the last ten minutes of the game.

      Say what you will for me we lack a leader who can galvanise the team to fight harder and with greater intensity.

      Where is that player, as of today it is not apparent!

  2. Reinert 10th August 2015 at 7:24 pm #

    Excellent read, straight to the point! I love me some good analyzis!

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 10th August 2015 at 11:48 pm #

      Thanks for reading Reinert, glad you enjoyed it.

  3. Derek 10th August 2015 at 7:49 pm #

    Agree we played better than expected,but need of Javier, Austin, top winger N’ ? + .Please don’t go for Berdinio who I feel is very over- rated, esprcially @ £12-15 million & not consistent. Real defensive player like Bentler a must for chance @ top 4. Note:
    Not impressed by Liverpools £80 million signings or Chelsea & Man United who in my opinion have over payed for their new players! Come on Levi stop messing around & let Lennon go for £5+. Million Townsend £12+ & Frazio £4-5 million or in part exchange for winger!

  4. Mike J 10th August 2015 at 9:38 pm #

    Another great article… you see things us mortals don’t!

    • Reinert 10th August 2015 at 11:04 pm #

      I agree, though we would see more if we watched the matches over again, and tried to figure out how things happen, step-by-step ;)

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 10th August 2015 at 11:54 pm #

      Haha, it’s all about re-emerging patterns ;)

  5. anotherwisemonkey 11th August 2015 at 10:49 am #

    Great analysis, Mark. I have loads of questions today and I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    I thought Kane was onside. Do you agree?

    Was playing Walker ahead of Trippier the right choice? Would Trippier not have provided better ammunition into the box from the right? And would he have been caught out for the goal?

    I’m interested to hear your thoughts on Dembele on the right. He had a decent game. Do you think he has what it takes to nail down this spot in the team, and keep Lamela out?

    I counted Bentaleb passing the ball to the opposition on five occasions and was glad when he was hooked off. How does Pochettino coach this out of him?

    Given the current personnel, what do you think is our best pairing at the base of the midfield in games against tricky opposition like this? I’m all for playing Mason and Bentaleb at home against teams we should beat, but suspect we need more solidity against strong teams.

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 11th August 2015 at 6:12 pm #

      Hi Anotherwisemonkey, some good questions so i’ll answer each one in turn.

      – Kane was onside, the linesman just misjudged it.
      – The right back slot is Walker’s to lose at the minute. Trippier may have provided slightly increased crossing support, but i thought Walker did well going forward. He had 2 shots at goal from cutting in off the right side, which was decent. Trippier wouldn’t have recovered for the goal. I’m pretty sure he would have been high up as that is what our full backs have been instructed to do. Trippier also played very high in the Audi Cup game vs AC Milan. Whether he would have been on the halfway line like Walker was is anyone’s guess as it is a complete guess-up of a situation of where he would have been, we can only assume high up the pitch somewhere.
      – Dembele has excellent defensive qualities, but as we know lacks a cutting edge in attacking situations. I think him being picked here was to do a job on Carrick and whether he continues to play here depends on if Pochettino wants the player in this role to be a shut-down defender. Personally i prefer Lamela as he offers more going forward, but we’ll see who he picks vs Stoke as that should give us some more clues.
      – Bentaleb is still young and he does have this in his game as analysed in the defensive midfield post last week. Pochettino has to work with him on the training field. I’m sure we’ll be constantly practicing moving the ball out from the back in this new open formation. Mistakes will be magnified in this set up though as it is high risk, high reward. If it continues then Pochettino can either leave him out or maybe send him on loan so that he can iron out these growing pains at someone else’s expense. They are growing pains though and he can’t be expected to be the complete package at his age.
      – The million dollar question as we don’t have a proper defensive midfielder at the minute, hopefully this will change before the end of the window. Right now with the sqaud as it is, I would go with Alderweireld and Bentaleb at the base of midfield against strong teams with Dier partnering Vertonghen at centre back.

  6. SSoLL 11th August 2015 at 11:38 am #

    Hello, I think it’s been quite a while since I comment on your article.
    I’ve been constantly translating your works in Korean though lol

    A lot of fans here are really worried(well… mad is more proper word I should say) about Spurs not signing any central midfielder.
    Although I think center forward is the most urgent. Because except Kane, we have no one to trust but all to offload.
    Which position you think is the most important position in this window? And who would be the best choice for us?

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 11th August 2015 at 6:32 pm #

      Hi SSoLL thank you for translating my stuff in to Korean, how is it going down?

      I think we just have to be patient, we still have a few weeks to sign a central midfielder, there is no need to panic just yet. There was a lot of work to do to clear the squad of the players Pochettino did not want, so things should start happening soon. Levy say that we wouldn’t see much incoming activity until the last 2 weeks of the window so i’m preparing myself for next week till we start to see some progress.

      I think defensive midfielder is key, but if we can only do one thing then a striker as alternative for Kane is paramount. Charlie Austin woud be an ok fit, Benzema would be a dream move, but players like Wilfried Bony, who could be tempted from Man City with his lack of playing time, would also be good.

      • SSoLL 12th August 2015 at 4:41 pm #

        Yeah everything’s good and everyone loves your stuff.

        Hmm, Interesting. The names you mentioned are good at link-up plays. But the names medias have mentioned, Berahino, N’jie, Hernadez, are very different with them.
        How should we take this?

        • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 12th August 2015 at 11:41 pm #

          Great to hear. The names I mention are for centre forward only, whereas players like N’Jie and Berahino could very much play as wide forward also and would be used by Pochettino in the way that he did with Jay Rodriguez. Hybrid players that could be rotation for Kane -if want someone to run in-behind rather than Harry who comes towards the ball- or Chadli.

  7. Dane 11th August 2015 at 12:44 pm #

    Great analysis and excellent photo backup. It appears to indicate that Chadli was getting himself in excellent, dangerous positions. Of course, pairing him with Dembele does not take optimum advantage of that. I hope Kane realizes that if he can target Chadli, then that will ultimately take some of the attention off himself and give him some freedom.

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 11th August 2015 at 6:34 pm #

      Yep, spot on. I’m curious to see if Dembele gets picked to play on the right again vs Stoke or if it was just a situational choice as we were playing Man Utd and Pochettino wanted him to do a job. My personal preference is for Chadli, Eriksen and Lamela across those three positions.

  8. SpurredoninDublin 11th August 2015 at 2:47 pm #

    I would never be so bold as to challenge the excellent analyses that Mark puts together, but I would like to analyse this result from a different perspective.

    Of the top 6 teams, we were the only one that was playing away to a higher placed team, so therefore it comes as no surprise that we lost. However, the corresponding match last season was one of our worst performances. Look at the stats from and you will see that we were pretty much the equal of Manure in all areas on Saturday. It could just as easily have been 1-0 to us. There are two conclusions that can be drawn from this: Either Manure are far from being the finished article, or we have done a great job in tightening up at the back. Toby looked a natural, so I would hope it was the latter.

    So look at the remaining four teams. Arsenal: Have you seen the results that Wet Sham were getting in the EL, and then they come and mug the gooners?

    Chelsea: They couldn’t beat Swansea at SB, despite being comfortable winners of the PL.

    Pool: Not surprising that they beat Stoke, but it wasn’t a convincing win.

    Mancs: Look as if they mean business.

    I have spent most of this close season imagining the gap widening between us and the other 5, but on the basis of the opening game, I am far from convinced that they will all pull away from us. If I learned that the defence had been tightened up, I think it also became obvious that the best way to stop us, was to make sure Harry Kane did not get service.

    So in conclusion, I think that if the defence was a foretaste of things to come, what is still needed is that second striker to partner Kane. Seen a very interesting one today: Embola of Basle: Age 18. Has played in the CL/EL and has scored 20 goals with 14 assists in 55 games for Basle. Those are the sort of figures that make you think, “Is this the Swiss Harry Kane””. Rumoured to be available at £10 mill.

    • anotherwisemonkey 11th August 2015 at 6:01 pm #

      Really good to read a positive spin which is based on facts. After signing the Magnificent Seven, we’re well aware that not all signings bed in well and even fewer do it successfully. We were all expecting Falcao and Di Maria do set the world alight for Man U last year Another year embedding Pochettino’s systems, with personnel better suited to the task, and the removal of negative influences or barriers to the team for our eager to please youth. I think it’s a recipe for a good season, although I still think we’ll just miss out on the Champions League.

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 11th August 2015 at 6:43 pm #

      Excellent analysis SpurredoninDublin. I talked in the preview to this game that we were getting Man Utd at the right time before all their new signings settle as I think that they will improve, just like last year, as the season progresses. THere could be the chance to steal a march on them whilst they gel though, but Saturday was a wasted opportunity as we weren’t clinical with our chances. Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool did all struggle though, so you are right in saying that the top four may not be as far away as we think.

  9. Bleedlilywhite 12th August 2015 at 5:50 am #

    Mark, great read again. Thanks.
    I am grieving the loss, but this game has amused me. What system did Spurs play? It was not typical 4-2-3-1. Wide CBs positioning and Dier at the middle made me see 5-1-4 at times. That was our defensive posture. In attack Spurs were an old fashioned 4-2-4 on many occasions before getting back to default 4-2-3-1. You preached a lot of a need for fluidity to be reinstalled. Spurs had it, not only upfront, but back to MF as well. It did not last entire time, but it was there a lot.

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 12th August 2015 at 11:04 am #

      Hi Bleedlilywhite, some great observations. A team’s formation changes in both defensive, transitional and attacking stages and as you correctly observed Spurs set up in an initial base of 4-2-3-1 but this morphed in many different variations depending on when we did have the ball and when we didn’t. At times it looked like we had a back three or even back five, as you pointed out, to bring the ball out. Once we get it to halfway then it can become 4-2-4 as players assume new positions having cleared the defensive zone. The way the team flows has a lot to do with fluidity and variation depends on the coach. Some teams just have attacking and defensive shape, but some are much more complex. eg Man Utd seemed to go from a base 4-3-3 to a 4-1-1-4 in the attacking phase. It is usually the base formation that people try and talk about – i know it is for me – as everything morphs from here depending on if you have the ball and what zone of the pitch it is in.

  10. Jay 12th August 2015 at 8:38 pm #

    Excellent analysis Mark. You show a real understanding of how the formation and tactics evolve each players contributions are well profiled. I agree with your analysis. my observations are; Dembele did a system job and is potentially able to add some offensive thrust to his default setting of sideways passing. Both Kane and Erikson had opportunities to pick Chadli in space. I hope it was lack of Match sharpness rather than skill deficiency that stopped them picking him out as it made Chadli appear anonymous. We kept waiting for Andros Townsend to develop the ability to use his pace intelligently and be less one dimensional, we have now lost patience as he has gone from being a cheap Gareth Bale to an Expensive Aaron Lennon. I hope Bentaleb cuts out these lapses quickly so he can go to the next level. Dier strikes me as a very intelligent and adaptable footballer who could grow into a DM role if we fail to get a top class centre. Then the obvious striker supplements.

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 13th August 2015 at 12:20 am #

      Thanks for reading Jay. It’ll be interesting to see how Pochettino approaches the Stoke game as we will be at home vs a counter attacking team, quite different than man Utd. Will he keep Dembele on the right? Will we again see pressing – and for longer periods now fitness has had another week to improve? Or will he look to draw Stoke out by sitting off ourselves? Will we be clinical in front of goal? As that is where we messed up vs Man utd. The game should give us some more clues as to how we will play this season.