Spurs 0-0 Man Utd: Wingbacks and central quartet cause Pochettino to fret

Louis van Gaal’s system causes Mauricio Pochettino problems, as it finishes Spurs 0-0 Man Utd in our Premier League clash at White Hart Lane.

Mauricio Pochettino thought the result was “fair,” whilst Louis van Gaal was left bemoaning that his side “dropped two points.”

The fact that Hugo Lloris was man-of-the-match told you where the overall balance of power lay. Spurs were better than van Gaal gave us credit for, but not as good as Mauricio Pochettino might have claimed.

The key to this match was Man Utd’s wingbacks that dominated the first half, but also their use of four central players in front of their back three.

Central four

Man Utd controlled much of this game through their use of four players in central midfield. Michael Carrick operated in front of three centre backs with Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata floating ahead of him, whilst Radamel Falcao dropped in to form almost a diamond shape in the centre of the park.


Man Utd constantly got 4 players in to central midfield.

What this allowed Man Utd to do was dominate the middle of the pitch against our trio of Ryan Mason, Benjamin Stambouli and Christian Eriksen. When the Red Devils won the ball, it would be quickly transferred out to their wingbacks or Juan Mata drifting between the lines. This would allow them to create chances from through balls (1) or wide areas (2).


Man Utd chances created.

All of their good opportunities from open play arrived in this fashion.

Wingbacks push us back

Man Utd created several good opportunities in the first half and they all stemmed from this central four dominating the play. What it allowed the Red Devils to do was get men forward, especially their wingbacks.

Here we can see with just two minutes on the clock how high both their wingbacks – Young and Valencia – are, but also how they could flood the box. Mata and Rooney often got up in support of van Persie and Falcao.


Man Utd pushed their wingbacks on.

Their wingbacks were a focal point for many an out ball with both Young and Valencia being able to get high up the pitch. This pushed our full backs towards their own goal, as both Chiriches and Davies were knocked on to the back foot. This often stopped us getting out as both had to defend deep and were unable to get forward and support any kind of attack.

Our best moments in the first half arrived when we could get men up the pitch in to the areas that the Man Utd wingbacks had vacated. Unsurprisingly it was our wide players that were the architects. Nacer Chadli picked out a cross that was just too high for Harry Kane. On the other side, Andros Townsend had a shot that stung the palms of David de Gea, whilst also dinking a cute ball round the corner that Harry Kane just failed to get on the end of.

The main balance of power was with Man Utd though. Their wingbacks were forcing us back, allowing Juan Mata space between the lines to cut us open with through balls.

An early one saw him release Radamel Falcao who cut inside and shot tamely at Hugo Lloris.


Mata finds Falcao.

Later Mata released the Colombian once more to run in to space at Federico Fazio. Falcao was quicker to jink inside the Argentinean, but again his curling shot looking for the corner was comfortably saved by Lloris.


Mata releases Falcao again.

The key was not only Mata getting between the lines, but the strikers running the inside channels between our centre back and full back. Van Persie was fouled doing this, which then saw Mata’s free kick ping off the post, resulting in Vlad Chiriches clearing from a goal-line scramble.

Van Persie was then off running the inside channels once more, as Michael Carrick found him with a lofted ball over the top. The Dutchman tried to flick the ball from his left to right foot to outwit the onrushing Hugo Lloris, but our French stopper was too agile for him, stretching out a leg to block his shot.

Man Utd had created several opportunities from open play and it was all stemming from their central quartet and wingbacks.

If only to show how influential the wingbacks had been, Young almost put them ahead on half time. His curling effort was heading towards the top corner when Hugo Lloris flung himself across his goal to magnificently deny him.

Second half switches

After dominating the first half, there were two switches, and a case of fatigue, that stemmed the flow of United’s dominance.

Both managers highlighted that their players were tired from having played just 43 hours earlier. This had an affect after the interval as the tempo dropped considerably.

There were also two switches made that influenced the game.

Firstly, the much more attack-minded Antonio Valencia went off for Rafael. This altered the balance of power down the right where the Ecuadorian had been a focal point to push Ben Davies back. Rafael was less able to get forward due to the second switch. This was for us to play much higher, trying to get our full backs up in support of Andros Townsend and Nacer Chadli.

With us pushing forward down the flanks, it mitigated both Rafael and Young’s influence. In the first half, Ashley Young was heavily involved and received the ball very high up the pitch.


Ashley Young passes received 1st half, Spurs 0-0 Man Utd.

After the interval, and the switch to push up down the flanks, Young barely got possession of the ball in our final third.


Ashley Young passes received 2nd half, Spurs 0-0 Man Utd.

The changes, along with fatigue, allowed us to come back more in to the game. Man Utd did still create chances by getting in to wide zones and crossing though. Mata pulled a ball back that van Persie fired over. Rafael showed that they still had some wingback presence, as he got forward to set up a low cross that Mata blasted high in to the stands.

We were still being stifled in the centre by Man Utd’s quartet in the middle. Harry Kane had one of his trademark runs cut off as he drew a crowd of six players.


Kane gets blocked off through the centre.

Later he created arguably the chance of the match. Kane is a very under-rated presser from the front. After robbing the ball from Michael Carrick to create a chance in the first half, he did the same in the second and then charged towards goal. Faced once more with a congested centre, this time he had Ryan Mason running beyond him. His deftly weighted pass hit the surging midfielder in stride, but Mason could only fire over when anything low would have had an excellent chance of beating de Gea.


Kane picks out Mason’s run.

Spurs 0-0 Man Utd overall

It’s difficult to read too much in to this game due to the circumstances. Man Utd were the better side, but two games in under 48-hours did play a factor, for both teams. A stale second half was the result.

Mauricio Pochettino did make some changes here from the Leicester match, but with the squad we have, it may have been a better idea to play two different teams in these games.

Being the focal points to provide both width in attack, as well as get back and defend, Pochettino did change both his full backs for this one. Curiously he opted for the better pairing of Walker and Rose against Leicester, where they would have been much more use here to push Man Utd’s wingbacks towards their own goal.

What’s more, a powerful, stronger midfield with increased physical presence would have stood up to Man Utd’s four players dominating the centre. With Dembele’s introduction there was a noticeable shift in the control of the central area as Mason and Stambouli struggled to get to grips with the task.

Overall it was a decent point considering the problems that van Gaal’s system caused us. There will be decidedly more recovery and planning time for Chelsea on Thursday.

Final score: Spurs 0-0 Man Utd.

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16 Responses to Spurs 0-0 Man Utd: Wingbacks and central quartet cause Pochettino to fret

  1. Chazza36 29th December 2014 at 7:27 pm #

    Well thought out article but I can’t find any sense in your last paragraph.
    You would have Rose ball-watching in defence for 90 minutes while Valencia runs around un-marked in 15-20 yards of space behind him?
    Not for me. The game would have been over in an hour.

  2. Chazza36 29th December 2014 at 7:29 pm #

    Third last paragraph, sorry

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 30th December 2014 at 9:48 am #

      Hi Chazza36. Rose is a much better athlete than Davies and despite the latter being a better defensive player, he is slower to get forward. We needed to push Man Utd’s wingbacks away from our goal and the aggressiveness of both Walker and Rose to get up the pitch would’ve done this.

  3. YouShubes 29th December 2014 at 8:27 pm #

    Liverpool gave us problems with their diamond as well IIRC. I don’t think he played the strongest team he could.

    I would have had Lennon and Lamela on their natural flanks, (or at least Walker to give us width down that flank, Vlad is too slow to zip up and down) and used Bentaleb’s passing to force their wingbacks back thus we would match/outnumber their midfield.

    We desperately need a deep passer who can play lofted balls into space for our quicker players to run on to. No matter what the formation we play against.


    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 30th December 2014 at 9:57 am #

      Yes, I did a detailed piece at the start of the season on how Mauricio Pochettino was using Etienne Capoue for this role, especially during pre-season and our early games. Capoue seems to have fallen out of favour with Pochettino and we have struggled to move the ball quickly out of central midfield recently.

  4. UKFootballFan 30th December 2014 at 2:34 am #

    Mata gave Spurs trouble – without him the wing backs would not have had the opportunities. Great player, wonderful game.

    Doesn’t Man U’s 2nd half tactics of fouling Spurs rate a mention (4 yellow cards, 19 fouls, numerous fouls waved on by the ref)?

    LVG gave up in the 2nd half and sent on defensive players. Man U ended up resorting to Stoke tactics – hack and boot it up the park.
    I’m also curious why no one seems to mention Rooney tackling and throwing Kane to the ground – terrible sportsmanship, should have been penalised at the very least.

    I was impressed with Man U in the first half (especially Mata) but they wilted as the match wore on and Spurs got stronger. Both teams had the same rest so hats off to MP for his preparation of the team, left LVG for dead in that department.

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 30th December 2014 at 10:07 am #

      I wouldn’t say Man Utd’s second half tactics were to foul us. They committed 7 fouls in the first half and 11 in the second. For me it was more a case of fatigue than adopting Stoke-style rugby tactics, although Rooney’s foul on Kane was terrible and should’ve been punished.

      It was a designed play to run Kane off a screen and deliver the ball to him at the near post. I’ve written in other match reports about designed corner routines for Kane eg vs Swansea and Rooney will have known this. Kane had the position on him and the ball was delivered perfectly in to the spot that it should have been and where Kane would’ve been had he not been hauled down. If you watch on, Rooney is the one who clears the ball from exactly the spot where Kane was heading.

    • anotherwisemonkey 30th December 2014 at 11:51 pm #

      I totally agree. Young should have had a second yellow for hauling a Spurs player back when we were breaking, and Rooney should have conceded a penalty. How van Persie escaped at least a booking for lashing out at Vertonghen I’ll never know. Add to this the way their players challenged every single decision against them, even when to do so was ludicrous, and the numerous times the ref waved play on, and I think it is a factor of the game that deserves to be examined.

      That aside, another excellent analysis as usual. I’m concerned that the channel between Fazio and the right back continues to be an avenue that opposition teams easily exploit. However, Fazio had his best game yet for us. He was a great aerial presence in both boxes.

      Here’s hoping we can get something against Chelsea.

  5. jimi 30th December 2014 at 7:54 am #

    like i said before ,

    1) Pottechino has been slow in making changes in the 2nd half ; should have taken in eg Dembele much earlier.

    2) would prefer Walker in the 1st eleven but then he just came back from injury.

    Overally, we were lucky in the 1st half not to concede (3 / 4 goals?). By then , as usual we would not have recovered in the 2nd half.

    Am surprised we are not buying new players, no potent strikers (except KANE) and no other playmaker (cant always rely on Eriksen). what if Kane / Eriksen is injured ???

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 30th December 2014 at 10:09 am #

      Good points Jimi. I feel we will have to sell before we buy, but some names may be harder to shift on than others due to their under-performing and Levy won’t want to take big financial hits on them.

  6. n4spurs 30th December 2014 at 10:38 am #

    Just wanted to ad that I thought we looked scared of them in the first half and didnt really get stuck in to them until the 2nd half when kane dropped deep and started putting himself about and this seemed to be infectious with the rest of the team smelling blood. I think we wasted an opportunity to beat the second half to be honest.

    Also I don’t understand MP putting together new combinations in big games, chirches and townsend seemed like a really strange paring on the right, especially after how good walker and lamella looked, and stambouli & mason in the middle? that was really odd neither of them are very good and ticking the ball over like bentaleb and dembele, so we struggled to retain the ball and had no patience with it pushing the play in an overloaded midfield.. intact it felt like we were set up to get stuck in to them from the start as they are the 2 most prolific tacklers we have, but they were chasing shadows, i goes because of the diamond you pointed out?

    Also i think dembele is way better at the chadli role, he might be flexible enough to play the 2nd striker that chadli does at times, but he wouldn’t be the constant dead end on the wing that chadli is and changed the pattern of play when he came on, and he can even beat his man when he’s one on one with a full back, I would like to see him get more time on the left..

    Why did we buy daives when out manager wanted to play with fbs that bomb on, it really seems like an odd move, I like davies a lot but his lack of pace doesn’t seem to fit so much in the system…

    also i would have love to see lennon over townsend, i think when lennon has played recently he seems to be better than ever at changing his game, under avb he couldn’t work it out on the “wrong” wing, but he is playing with much more intelligence these days, I hope he isn’t leaving, he’s our longest serving player and is in his prime age wise – and would have been a great outlet to how risky they were playing in the first half..

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 30th December 2014 at 3:46 pm #

      Great comment N4Spurs. I’m not sure what is up with Lennon, he put in a few good performances but hasn’t been in the squad the last few games. Pochettino does seem to like inverted wide players and Lennon does struggle with this when he has to play on the left. On the right is a different story though and he has looked much better on his natural side. The Chiriches and Townsend combo down this flank was a curious one. It is theoretically an inverted wide player with an overlapping full back, but given the success of Lennon and Chriches when used together on the right, it seemed strange to not go with that here. Especially if Pochettino was intent on using Vlad in this game and Walker vs Leicester.

      Stambouli and Mason looked a bit lightweight, but given Bentaleb was out with a virus, Pochettino’s choices in here were a bit more limited. But still, given the turnaround between matches, Dembele would’ve been a good choice to give us some presence in there.

      As for Ben Davies, i think he was a decent pick-up to provide competition with Rose, but just wasn’t the right type of player for this match. He will get a lot of games, but against a side using wingers as wingbacks, we really needed to push them back. Antonio Valencia is a half-decent makeshift defender at best and more known for his attacking play from a right midfield position. Ashley Young has never been known for having good defensive qualities and is again another winger playing the wingback position. We should’ve tested them more the other way to see just how good defensively they really are.

  7. Alex n4 spurs 30th December 2014 at 1:13 pm #

    i thought that not only were we swamped in the middle first half but we bottled it aswell, he put our 2 most direct cms & prolific tacklers in mason & stambouli to get at them (and bizarrely no one to retain possession) in the middle, and then we shyed away from the task, the real change for me in the 2nd half on our part was kane dropping deep and getting stuck in, all of a sudden we had them unable to get it out and panicky.

    MP made a few odd pairings i thought, mason & stambouli for one, and townsend & chiriches aswell, i would rather see lennon, walker & lamella involved before them. I do get the feeling that he sets up with an idea of what subs hes going to use before a game that actually responding to whats going on, this is the only way i can explain some things he does..

    Btw Why buy davies when he doesnt have the pace for the inverted winger system our manager loves? Hes a smart player and a great crosser of the ball but because of roses pace he isnt the first choice he should be.

    Also Dembele looked way more effective than nacer ‘the dead end’ chadli on the right flank, the game changed again when he came on, he can actually beat a fb one on one unlike chadli, he hasnt got the versitility to play as a second striker but he is one of our better players for ball rentention and he creates passages of play chadli just cant.

    Also i hope lennon isnt going, hes our
    longest serving player and is playing his smartest football when he gets a chance, he took a long time to get in to playing on the wrong wing, and i think we would have really benefited from his pace against utd, he is still our best outlet when we play on the break and utd set up on such a risky top heavy way he might of been able to do real damage..

    Also like you said kanes pass to mason was so calm and smart, it was probably as exciting as any goal he scored for me…

    • Chris 30th December 2014 at 8:49 pm #

      The tricky thing about the game is that it’s hard to know if it was Poch’s selection that meant we were totally outplayed in the first half, or if it was just that their players are better than ours (though I do suspect the same as you).

      I don’t think that playing Davies and Chiriches was such a bad idea. Both Walker and Rose have their moments of madness, so being a bit more defensive minded wasn’t such a big problem for me. Yes, attack may be the best form of defence, but damn it’s risky. Mind you, if you’re avoiding madness, then it’s hard to justify playing Chiriches.

      That Mason miss was huge (what a pass!), and like Bentaleb last week I think it points to a lack of maturity in our team. That’s a positive, mind – I like us playing a young team! We have to expect a few mistakes like that, though. And tbf, their very expensive and mature players also missed several good chances.

      I remember how Bale (back when he was still a bit crap) always looked like he would score his chances. Watching Mane run away from Terry the other day, he also just looked like he’d score. To paraphrase, the only thing in his mind was which way he was going to run the celebrate the goal. Bentaleb, not so much.

  8. Dr JAB 31st December 2014 at 1:09 pm #

    Hi Mark

    Another compelling assessment and your summary said it all.

    A few thoughts about tactics: we seem to have had difficulties with the 352 formation on sunday. From my understanding this formation presents problems for its users as there are large gaps between the back 3 and middle 5 which can easily be exploited. This is where Townsend and Chadli should have benefitted. We have also had issues with the diamond used by Liverpool (not sure if in Poch’s time) in which the players get between our lines and we also have problems with those teams that block the centre of the pitch and catch us on the break – matches at WHL.

    Is the 4231 formation we use the single answer to thes tactics adopted against us or should we adapt our formation to deal with these variations?

    We have a surfeit of midfielders. If structure follows strategy, should we not adopt this as it would play to some of our strengths which would allow 2 strikers up front? Given our earlier exchange about using Kane as the single striker so early in his career, MP seems to have settled on this despite our expensive striker sitting on the bench as he is even less suited to the role.

    Although possibly heresy, I can’t agree with you on Rose other than that he has speed. We have up to now been haemorrhaging goals at the back and for all of Davies faults he has shored up the defence along with Verts and Fazio getting game time to build up an understanding which CB’s need. Consequently we have reduced goals against us.

    Watching the team on sunday one feels this is not a top 4 team yet despite all our hopes. Rose, Naughton, Vlad, Soldado, Paulinho, Townsend and Chadli are not value adding in the way that Erikson is and need to be jettisoned eventually. We have been lucky with our recent results. I dont think that this will continue on thursday.

    Thanks for all your insightful posts during the year and wishing you and your readers all the best for 2015.

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 31st December 2014 at 7:41 pm #

      Great comment John and some good questions which i’ll tackle in turn.

      We have had difficulties with variations of three centre backs and i’m not sure if 4-2-3-1 is ideal to take this formation on. Success against 3-4-1-2, 3-5-2 or its variants is to get players behind the wingbacks, which pulls the centre backs out towards the sideines. 4-3-3 is usually the best set up to do this, but with wide forwards on their natural sides rather than inverted. Man Utd’s tactics are to outnumber centrally, so as soon as we had the ball, we should’ve tried to make the pitch as wide as possible, this is where the natural rather than inverted wide players come in – Townsend and Chadli were constantly cutting inside and in to trouble.

      Man Utd have lost three PL games this season, 2 of which were to Swansea and Leicester, both of whom played 4-3-3. If you happened to catch the MNF preview with Carragher and Neville, you would’ve seen Swansea’s first goal against Man Utd came from their wide forwards being out almost hugging the touchline, stretching Man Utd right out. They didn’t mention this as they were talking about Liverpool vs Swansea but it was an excellent example of how you break Man Utd down.

      With regards to getting 2 strikers on the pitch, i think Pochettino has done it quite well so far. Kane playing from the number ten role behind Soldado, for me, has brought the best out in both of them. The problem is that it shifts Eriksen out to the left where he isn’t quite as effective. His recent performances in the centre highlight where his best position is, but unfortunately to get two strikers in to the side, then something has to give. Playing him in central midfield in a 4-4-2 would be far too lightweight and would expose his lack of defensive positioning and physicality.

      Re Danny Rose, I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree :)

      Happy New Year and all the best for a great 2015!