A humdinger of a game sees us overcome a narrow-playing Red Devils side with it finishing Spurs 3-0 Man Utd at White Hart Lane.
Wow, just wow. A close, tense, even nervy encounter erupted in six second half minutes as we got to grips with how to attack a tenacious and pesky Man Utd side. The key was quick ball movement in to the wide areas to take out Man Utd’s narrow formation. Once we had established this, we never looked back, racing to a final score of Spurs 3-0 Man Utd and three vital points to stay on Leicester’s tail.
A thirty-minute delay to kick off due to the Man Utd bus being stuck in traffic seemed to affect us much more than them. We were slow out of the traps and struggling with Man Utd’s pressing.
The Red Devils haven’t been renowned for playing forceful or up tempo football and adopting this strategy from the off knocked us surprisingly on the back foot.
Man Utd opted for a man-to-man pressing scheme. Each player had his identified target once they were set in their defensive formation. Rashford and Martial would take Alderweireld and Vertonghen. Lindegaard was on Dier. Schneiderlin on Dembele. It caused us a number of troubles trying to bring the ball out as we couldn’t navigate this early press and were forced to go long where Man Utd would win the ball back.
On top of this was the interesting positioning of Juan Mata. Usually he is stationed much higher up, but here he was playing as a floating wing back on the right. His role was more of a spy, charged with watching for and trying to intercept the long diagonal passes of Toby Alderweireld. He would float, often just hanging off a bit, looking for the raking diagonals that we use to quickly turn defence in to attack. In the first half he was very successful. It really stifled us escaping the Man Utd pressing trap, but also stopped us from moving the ball quickly from side-to-side.
On top of this, Man Utd were also looking to play extremely narrow and force us out of the centre. We looked at their narrow shape in the Spurs vs Man Utd preview and they were at it again here, often getting four players in to central areas to force us back or create turnovers.
Teams that had success against Man Utd were ones that had moved the ball quickly out wide to deliver crosses. It took us 25 minutes to figure how to do this, but once we did, the tide began to turn.
Tottenham wide boys
Juan Mata was proving to be the difficult hurdle to navigate as he was looking to stop Alderweireld’s diagonal passes. On top of this, right back Timothy Fosu-Mensah was also having an excellent game as he jetted around the field in to tackles and blocks.
The pendulum began to swing as we were able to get our full backs forward and expose Man Utd in the wide areas. Both Kyle Walker and Danny Rose had initially been forced back to start the game. Anthony Martial was a key outlet for Man Utd down Walker’s flank. Rose was forced back by Mata and Fosu-Mensah.
What changed was Erik Lamela beginning to drift over to the left to aid Danny Rose and Christian Eriksen to cause overloads. Eriksen’s infield runs attracted right back Fosu-Mensah and this left Mata 1v1 with Rose and no match for our speedy left back. Add in Lamela’s movement across to overload and now we were getting space down the left.
Our first real chance of the game arrived as a result. Rose got forward, Lamela drifted over and the pair got in a tussle for the ball. Possession was won, lost and then won back again before the ball was chipped in to the box towards Harry Kane. A scramble ensued and the ball was partially cleared before Kyle Walker, who was high pressing on the other side, won it back. Walker then laid it off to Eriksen who chipped it in to the Penalty area towards Lamela’s run. The Argentine had slipped off the back of Juan Mata, who was preoccupied with Danny Rose, and should’ve headed in the opener.
Lamela didn’t and missed the target altogether. He should’ve of scored and took a lot of flak from the media, TV commentators and on twitter for not going back across the goalkeeper. However, David de Gea’s positioning was such in his goal that he didn’t come over all the way and was already leaning back to his left as if to play for the header back across him. De Gea left his near post open and Lamela, picking the right choice, missed the chance.
The door had been opened from getting in to the wide areas and it wouldn’t be long before it happened again. Minutes later and Kyle Walker was buzzing forward, skipping past Marcos Rojo and in to the box before seeing his effort blocked away.
Both Walker and Rose grew as influences more as the game went on. Rose was a particular standout, as he exploited Juan Mata being more often than not on him with Timothy Fosu-Mensah trying to tuck inside with his centre backs.
As Walker and Rose grew in to the game, so too did our control of the wide areas and hence the match, but we couldn’t break the deadlock before half time.
Half time switch
At the interval, Louis van Gaal made a curious substitution. On came Ashley Young and off went Marcus Rashford. Young stayed up top, leaving no real focal point. Man Utd were tired from there pressing exertions in the first half and now had no real out ball or release valve to hold play up.
The tactic by van Gaal didn’t really work for most of the second half, but it did provide Man Utd’s biggest chance of the game. Throughout the match, the Red Devils were trying to get the ball out to Anthony Martial on the left so that he could use his pace, dribble inside and shoot.
The Frenchman jinked inside Kyle Walker and in-between our centre backs before unleashing a venomous shot, but fortunately it was straight at Hugo Lloris. It was a massive moment, Man Utd could’ve taken the lead and that would’ve put a much different spin on the match.
Wide areas key to victory
No more than seven minutes after Martial’s big chance to blow the game open and our perfect storm arrived. All three goals came from moving the ball quickly in to the wide areas to navigate Man Utd playing narrow. It also coincided with Timothy Fosu-Mensah being withdrawn and replaced by Matteo Darmian. The Italian has looked much weaker playing on his unfavoured side and so it proved pivotal here.
The first came from a long ball downfield towards Harry Kane. The striker had been quiet for much of this game as he was having a tough time with the attentions of Chris Smalling. Louis van Gaal was obviously worried about Kane overpowering the smaller Daley Blind and had detailed Smalling to mark Kane at every opportunity and for Blind to take Dele Alli.
Lamela went up for the initial header, as did Kane and a scramble for the ball ensued. Lamela was on the floor and dug it out. Chris Smalling had been drawn out by Kane’s movement and was suddenly on the wrong side as Harry distributed the ball out to Eriksen.
While the scramble was going on, Dele Alli had slipped off the back of Blind who was caught watching the melee. Man Utd were suddenly caught with their numbers in the middle of the park and all extremely narrow. Eriksen was suddenly on the ball and on the outside of them.
Eriksen’s vision and reverse pass from out wide on the outside of Darmian back in to Alli in the centre was a thing of beauty. With Daley Blind trying desperately to get back and mark his assigned man, Alli remained calm and composed to slot home the opener, 1-0.
Until that moment, the game was tight. The opening goal brought belief that what we were doing was working and would bring more. It did and once again it was from getting the ball out in to a wide area before the narrow Man Utd formation could react.
It again started with a long ball forward in to Harry Kane. With Chris Smalling once more at his back, Kane took the ball down and immediately drifted out wide to look for the space that we were overloading.
On his way to finding it, he miscontrolled his dribble, giving Matteo Darmian enough sight of the ball to try and clear it away. Darmian swung a leg and with Harry too quick to knick it away, the full back ended up clattering Kane, bringing him down.
Erik Lamela swung in the resulting free kick and Toby Alderweireld glanced home a pinpoint header in to the corner of the net, leaving David de Gea motionless. The Man Utd keeper could only watch it nestle in the corner then berate Marcos Rojo for making a right hash of his marking assignment.
The Lane was bouncing and the roof was about to come off as 2-0 became 3-0 with the pick of the bunch.
The goal included everything good we’ve seen about Spurs’ play this season. Rapid ball movement from one side of the pitch to the other to alter the attack with one pass. Neat quick one and two-touch passing, always moving forward. Players arriving in areas and zones you wouldn’t always expect them to be with well-timed runs.
It was a thing of beauty to watch. Walker’s first time long diagonal across the pitch went straight over the head of Juan Mata who was supposed to be guarding against the quick switch diagonal pass.
Christian Eriksen’s deft flick-on showed his spatial awareness and brought Danny Rose rapidly in to play with the left flank now wide open. Rose then took a touch a fired a low cross in to the box where Erik Lamela was arriving on cue with a long out-to-in run that caught the Man Utd defence on it’s heels. Lamela made no mistake this time, slotting the ball back past David de Gea and in at the near post to make it Spurs 3-0 Man Utd with the move of the match.
Both managers did make changes. Louis van Gaal sent on Memphis Depay for Juan Mata. Depay did a better job of defending the flank, but by this time, the horse had well and truly bolted. The only surprise was Mauricio Pochettino not removing Eric Dier, who was a yellow card away from a two-match ban. Dier stayed on and with the ten-card amnesty occurring today, he will be clear to play the rest of the way.
Spurs 3-0 Man Utd overall
Getting the third goal to put teams firmly away has been an issue at times this season, but here we were absolutely ruthless. A six minute spell knocked Man Utd out with all three coming from moving the ball quickly in to the wide areas down our left before the narrow Red Devils could react.
Final score: Spurs 3-0 Man Utd.