A ponderous and passive Tottenham freeze in our most crucial Premier League match of the season, as it finishes Man Utd 3-0 Spurs at Old Trafford.
Louis van Gaal was left answering ‘ridiculous’ questions about Wayne Rooney’s at home fight night. The same word also summed up Tottenham’s performance as our Premier League ‘rat race’ game for the top four finished Man Utd 3-0 Spurs at Old Trafford.
Whilst we froze when the spotlight was shone on us, Man Utd excelled as they executed their tactical game plan after a nervy start.
The first couple of minutes looked as if we knew how to go about our business in this one. In previous matches, the Man Utd defence had got itself in to trouble by playing backwards and sideways, being vulnerable to teams that put them under pressure.
In the opening exchanges, Harry Kane pressured Phil Jones in to turning the ball over in the Man Utd half. He then put Jones under more pressure, forcing a wildly over-hit backpass that David de Gea had to slide and toe poke out for a corner as it shot goalwards. The early pressure from Kane was good, but it wasn’t backed up by his team mates. Man Utd were playing their usual extremely wide split centre backs with a player, Michael Carrick, dropping in. This meant that without any real backup, Kane’s pressing was nullified as Man Utd stretched him out.
I’d talked in the keys to Man Utd vs Spurs at how teams that have won at Old Trafford – Swansea, Southampton and Arsenal – had all played with a front three. This is part of the reason why this system works against Man Utd as it covers their defenders. It forces them to have to clear the ball long downfield, increasing chances of a turnover or a defensive error. The three X in the image above indicates where a front three can position itself against Man Utd’s split centre backs.
The early exchanges of the first two minutes were about as good as it got for Spurs with Louis van Gaal having a game plan that Man Utd executed perfectly.
Left side exploitation
Man Utd went to overload their left side and there were a number of keys to this.
The first was that this side of our defence saw the inexperience of Eric Dier, Ryan Mason and Andros Townsend, coupled with the sometimes naive Kyle Walker.
The second key was that van Gaal could overload this area with his most accurate passers – Michael Carrick and Daley Blind. He could combine them with his biggest aerial threat in Marouane Fellaini and then use Ashley Young to drag Kyle Walker around.
We were actually given a warning that van Gaal would play this way, as it is exactly how he set up against Arsenal in the FA Cup on Monday night. This is an image I used in the keys to Man Utd vs Spurs to show how they were shifting to an almost 4-1-1-4 in the attacking phase. This was to get Fellaini forward up by Rooney and numbers in to the box when Young and Di Maria had the ball.
This is a shot from the game yesterday as Man Utd once more spread their front three wide with Mata in for the suspended Di Maria. They once more got Fellaini up with Rooney and Michael Carrick is the base midfielder with Ander Herrera adopting Carrick’s slightly more advanced role from the Arsenal game.
The key was not only overloading the left, but Fellaini’s position drifting in-behind Ryan Mason. Unfortunately for Ryan his inexperience was really shown up here. Fellaini was drifting off the back of him and it was giving Kyle Walker nightmares about whether to pickup the Belgian or stay with Ashley Young.
Eric Dier and Jan Vertonghen stayed close to Wayne Rooney, as our centre backs seemed to have been detailed to shepherd him, and this didn’t help Walker.
Fellaini drifting off Mason and in to this space happened time and time again, forcing confusion and others to have to make quick decisions.
Man Utd were looking to hit Fellaini at every opportunity, as Mason was too undersized to deal with him aerially. Mason’s positioning was also shown up as Fellaini drifted behind him with ease. This was a situation where we needed an experienced head in midfield to recognise what was going on and take control of the situation. Neither Mason nor Nabil Bentaleb got to grips with it prior to half time.
The precision passers and the movement of Fellaini combined for Man Utd to take the lead.
The ball started with Daley Blind in the left back zone. Nacer Chadli let Michael Carrick easily run off the back of him for Blind to find him with a neat forward ball. At this point Marouane Fellaini had already drifted in-behind Ryan Mason. Kyle Walker is split between deciding to mark the big Belgian and sticking with his cover of Ashley Young.
Carrick receives the ball and this draws Mason in to stop him. This lets Fellaini make a run for the vacant channel and Walker now spotting the danger is unable to react in time. Neither is Eric Dier, who was also too slow to drop his cover of Wayne Rooney with Jan Vertonghen in a much better position to mark the England striker.
Fellaini rampaged through the huge hole and calmly finished across Hugo Lloris and in to the far corner.
The fact we’d been picked apart down this side didn’t stop it continuing as one soon became two.
Continuing with their game plan, Man Utd kept on moving the ball out to this flank and they doubled their advantage from a corner.
The build-up once more saw them switch the ball on a long diagonal out to the left. Marouane Fellaini was once again pulling away from Ryan Mason. Daley Blind and Ashley Young were in acres playing tight to the touchline, highlighting the organised nature of this plan.
Both Kyle Walker and Andros Townsend were slow out to the Man Utd pair and they forced a corner.
We were set up to mark zonally around the six-yard box, but man-to-man with United’s three runners on the edge of the box. Given how dangerous Marouane Fellaini is in the air, the space that Eric Dier afforded him was ridiculous.
What was equally absurd was how Kyle walker let Michael Carrick just drift off him after the Belgian won the initial header.
Carrick had time to pick his spot and planted his header in to the far corner of our net, which was gaping without any men on or near the posts.
Man Utd pressing
Not letting Man Utd get up a head of steam is an absolute must at Old Trafford. Gifting them two goals and letting their crowd in to the game had done just that. Letting them dictate the tempo was the third faux pas as their pressing hemmed us in with no easy out ball.
What Man Utd were trying to do when we had the ball was usher us in to the wide areas and then use the sideline to pen us in and close us down.
They were remarkably successful at this, often forcing us to kick the ball long, where Chris Smalling and Phil Jones would outnumber Harry Kane. Otherwise, we were pressured in to a turnover from an errant pass.
This is a situation where if we’d played 4-3-3 then we would’ve had more options for an out ball. As it was, Kane was forced to live off scraps and was ushered out of the game as any kind of factor. He couldn’t get the ball down to execute his powerful runs, nor did he have wide forwards to bring in to play with layoffs or flick-ons.
Man Utd’s third goal arrived after a spell of pressing, which we’d actually done well to navigate. Mousa Dembele had spun out of trouble and laid it back to Nabil Bentaleb. With Man Utd’s pressure dropped, Bentaleb, who must not have seen him, then played a square pass straight to Wayne Rooney.
What followed summed up our lacklustre defending, which has been an issue under Mauricio Pochettino. Rooney drove forward and through the hapless Eric Dier, who couldn’t sort his feet out or offer a challenge, before putting the ball in to the net. Only token resistance had been offered, which pretty much summed up our first half, as we went in at Man Utd 3-0 Spurs.
Second half switches
As can often happen in these games where one side shoots out the traps, the second half meanders through to the final whistle. Spurs offered a slightly improved performance, as Nabil Bentaleb was switched up to mark Marouane Fellaini.
The change worked, matching the Belgian up with a more physical presence. What it did was also allow Ryan Mason more freedom and the chance to get forward. Mason responded by getting up the park, jinking inside Michael Carrick, but pulling his shot past de Gea’s near post as the angle opened up for him.
Pochettino also introduced Erik Lamela, which got a much better and more energetic player in the defensive phase on to Man Utd’s left side. This had the effect of forcing both Daley Blind and Ashley Young back, but also saw Lamela win the ball back off them through tackling and intercepting. Although he has been criticised for what he offers on the ball, we know that Lamela is tenacious in winning it back. Why he didn’t start the game instead of Townsend, who has problems tracking runners, was a mystery.
Our head coach’s final change was to introduce Emmanuel Adebayor. The Togolese front man offered little as he came towards the ball rather than the runner in-behind that we needed.
Man Utd 3-0 Spurs overall
This was our most disappointing performance of the season. Mauricio Pochettino was out-coached by Louis van Gaal and slow to react. His early substitution of Mousa Dembele for Andros Townsend offered little change to what was happening when a repositioning of Ryan Mason was needed.
On the field, we’ve lauded our young team for it’s energy, drive and dynamism, but this will have been a major learning experience for them. What they lacked was in-game leadership and the ability of an on-field general who could recognise what was happening and take command. Our inexperience was exposed, as was that of Pochettino. By the time we had reacted, the match was over.
This game was tough to lose in such a humiliating manner given our confidence going in to it. Whilst there was anger and frustration at the poor performance, in the longer term, this match may well be looked at as a marker of lessons learned and a point of growth for our young team.
Final score: Man Utd 3-0 Spurs.