Wow, what a performance! Tottenham had to dig deep in order to gain their first victory at Old Trafford in 23 years, but it finished Man Utd 2 Spurs 3.
A section of the media were sure that the team was in turmoil with unhappy players and infighting. This was a performance of togetherness and unity, plotted by one of the brightest young managers in the game.
If last weekend we saw a game of two halves after a personnel switch at home to QPR, this encounter flip-flopped based on a tactical switch. Spurs were aggressive in the first half and then tried to defend their lead and play on the counter in the second.
Spurs create and are clinical
Andre Villas-Boas came to Old Trafford last season in charge of Chelsea and lined up in his usual 4-3-3.
His side created plenty of chances in the first period, which included close-range misses from Ramires and Fernando Torres. Their play deserved more as they failed to convert any of their 10 chances, whereas Man Utd scored three times from just the five that they manufactured.
Here Andre Villas-Boas went with his 4-3-3 once more, with Gareth Bale cutting inside from the left and Aaron Lennon playing wide on the right. The midfield trio of Sandro sitting deep, with Moussa Dembele operating just in front of him and Clint Dempsey working the inside right channel were superb.
Unlike Chelsea, Spurs were more clinical as they created chances using their speed to cut from deep against a slower Man Utd midfield and defence.
This was in evidence right from the start in both goals, which were scored by runners surging forward at pace, but created in different ways.
The first from Jan Vertonghen came as a result of some patient ball retention, as the play moved across the back four from right to left. Vertonghen then fed the ball forward to Gareth Bale and set off from deep cutting through the inside left channel. Bale held the ball up, then hit the driving Belgian in stride and at pace. Vertonghen then drove uncontested in to the area to make it 1-0.
The second was made by hitting a runner from deep as the result of a quick transition. Sandro made a tackle on the edge of our box, before Moussa Dembele hit a cutting Gareth Bale in stride and his pace torched the aging Rio Ferdinand to make it 2-0.
Bale was doing excellent work to receive the ball short over the halfway line and coming inside, whilst Aaron Lennon was stretching the play out on the right. The speed of both players was causing trouble for the Man Utd defence, with Lennon also darting in from the right side on occasion.
Andre Villas-Boas planned to use the speed of his players against Man Utd’s slower side by getting them the ball in areas where they had room to run and it was working.
Spurs try to defend the lead
If the first 45 was about Spurs using their speed to hit Man Utd with runners from deep, the second half saw a tactical switch to sit and play on the counter.
This is always a dangerous game to play at Old Trafford, even with a two-goal lead and we really had to dig in. Man Utd had 76% possession in the match and made a total of 752 passes to our 295, which shows their dominance.
The game swung with the decision to try and defend the lead and use our pace on the counter, but also as Paul Scholes came in to the game more.
Clint Dempsey has less of an effect on Paul Scholes
In the first half, Clint Dempsey was picking up Paul Scholes whenever we lost the ball. The Red Devils’ playmaker was still gaining possession, he was just forced to move it square almost immediately when receiving the ball. This had the effect of forcing Scholes to move it sideways rather than forward in the first half, whilst also forcing him deeper.
In the second, with Spurs deciding to drop back, Dempsey seemed to split this duty with Jermain Defoe and Scholes became more of a factor further up the field.
When Dempsey came off for Gylfi Sigurdsson, it was interesting that Andre Villas-Boas called Moussa Dembele over and tried to get him to pick up Scholes.
In our 5 keys to Man Utd vs Spurs, we saw how much Man Utd prefer to attack the right side. This game was no different, as they launched 40% of their forays forward to this side, compared to 30% down the left and 30% through the middle.
With the Red Devils’ favouring this side, Paul Scholes did plenty of his second half passing from the inside right channel. After not creating any chances in the first half, this is where the majority of Man Utd’s chances came from in the second.
Nani and Man Utd crossing
In my 5 keys to the game, we also looked at Man Utd’s crossing and how they lead the Premier league in the number attempted, with 29 per match.
Here they put 43 balls in to the box, as Nani was the main protagonist with 15 attempts.
Jan Vertonghen was able to stop some of his deliveries, but William Gallas and Steven Caulker were magnificent in the centre. As a result, the Red Devils completed just 4 of their 43 attempts.
United’s first goal did come from a cross, as Nani got in to the middle to receive a ball in from Wayne Rooney.
The introduction of Rooney and the effect on Robin van Persie
Down 2-0 at half time, Fergie unleashed Wayne Rooney for the second half at the expense of Ryan Giggs.
Rooney’s introduction might have seen the Red Devils’ go to a 4-2-1-3 as we saw when van Persie made his debut at Everton. That night, the Dutchman came on and made a fluid front three with Rooney and Nani, as Shinji Kagawa pulled the strings behind.
Here, Kagawa played narrow on the left with Rooney playing off of van Persie.
After getting a single shot away in the first half, Man Utd did get 15 in the second, but only two came from the Dutchman.
Robin van Persie’s movement naturally takes him to the left side of the formation, as he likes to receive the ball down the inside left channel. We can see this from where he gains possession in the first half.
Wayne Rooney also likes to get the ball to this side and his introduction caused van Persie to move to the right to receive possession quite often in the second half.
Rooney had 48 touches of the ball in just the second half alone, whereas van Persie had 41 touches all match.
With the Englishman operating from left, it was interesting that he created Man Utd’s first goal with one of his few passes played from the right.
The Englishman got four shots away and three were from outside the box, whereas the Dutchman only had two shots, both of which were off target.
Van Persie’s biggest chance came through his favoured inside left-channel, as Michael Carrick found him open at the back post. He could only pull it wide though, maybe a sign that he knew it was a big chance and that he wasn’t going to get many with Rooney taking his space?
Solid Spurs defending
For all of the domination that Man Utd had in the second half, Spurs defended resolutely as a team.
We can see how deep we were sat by the fact that we made all but one challenge in our own half. Sandro and Moussa Dembele did a great job in screening the back four, by making 12 tackles and 6 interceptions between them.
It was all hands to the pump in the second half, with Spurs attempting a whopping 46 clearances, of which only 18 found touch or a Tottenham player.
As we saw above, Man Utd created 12 chances in the second period and the majority were from the right. This is not only where they like to attack, but also where we have been the most porous defensively this season and they looked to expose this weakness.
Earlier in the week, we asked the question ‘Are Spurs getting better defensively under Andre Villas-Boas?” and saw we were improving in a number of areas.
This was our first big test when we came under some serious pressure and the lads responded with a bend but don’t break performance. Spurs usually don’t defend a lead well when we sit back, but here we were able to hang on.
When it came, the full time whistle was greeted with rapturous celebrations between the manager and players, with no sign of any turmoil that some media had indicated was rife.
History had been made.
Man Utd 2 Spurs 3 conclusions
This was a great performance; I said in the preview that I fancied Spurs to come here, put on a good show, but to leave with a point. To take all three was testament to the togetherness and solidarity of the team that Andre Villas-Boas is putting together.
Jan Vertonghen said that the team had a feeling they could do something.
“We had a feeling we could do something here. We have a lot of pace in our team with Jermain, Gareth and Aaron Lennon. That’s why we were positive.”
Andre Villas-Boas said the result and performance were ‘inspirational’ and was quick to praise the players, despite the role he had in plotting United’s downfall.
“We were outstanding in the first and second half, but in different ways. There were some great, great performances from players who are a inspiration to everyone.”
Final Score: Man Utd 2 Spurs 3