Manchester United’s victory against Tottenham Hotspurs in Premier League’s matchday 29 was not only surprising and impressive; it also turned the race for a Champions League spot for the next season to a whole different direction. From the six-team-race (Man Utd, Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham, Southampton, West Ham) for two spots in the first half of the season, it is now the four-team-race for the 2nd, 3rd and 4th place on the table among Man City, Man Utd, Liverpool and Arsenal.
The match was already decided in the first half when United were three nil up after only 34 minutes. The second half was somehow more of a two-sided battle, but it did not make too much a difference because of Tottenham’s poor performance.
Balanced United v. Misdirected Spurs
Louis van Gaal once again sprung an unpredictable line-up: Phil Jones replaced Marcos Rojo, Michael Carrick and Ander Herrera were selected in midfield, Juan Mata was handed his first start after exactly two months, while Wayne Rooney was deployed at center forward.
The Dutch boss employed a pretty basic and balanced 4-1-4-1 (which becomes 4-3-3 in attacking phase). When defending, United squeezed back to the upper part of their own half and formed a compact system with two lines of men. Michael Carrick, as a holding midfielder, did a good job covering for the defenders. He did not have a single successful tackle or interception, but his influence was undeniable.
Meanwhile, Mauricio Pochettino made a few mistakes with his line-up. The in-form Moussa Dembele was not selected. Andros Townsend and Nacer Chadli hugely disappointed his boss – the former was subbed out in the 31st minute, the latter was moved around the attacking line due to his inability to contribute to the team’s play.
Apparently the former Southampton boss miscalculated tactically and continued Spurs’ tradition of being inconsistent (in a negative manner) in big matches.
Out of the two central midfielders alongside Carrick, Marouane Fellaini was the one who had the tendency to move higher up the pitch than Ander Herrera. He usually found himself right in front of Spurs’ high defense line. This made Ryan Mason – who was supposed to mark Fellaini – very uncomfortable.
The first goal of the match was the direct result of Mason’s nervousness. The Spurs academy graduate found it hard to man mark any United players
As a result, Manchester United opened the score fairly quickly and the scorer was, you know it, Fellaini. So the question was how to avoid being exposed? There was only one way to do that: Spurs had to squeeze themselves tight to minimize the spaces among their players. However they did the exact opposite by playing wider when defending. If a team lacked quality players, that would be a big problem – even Manchester City or Real Madrid had difficulty applying this method of defending. Who did Spurs think they are?
Manchester United also made the best out of Fellaini’s ability as a Target Man (sort of) inside the box. The rule was really simple: when the ball was moved to the flank in the final third, Fellaini tended to position himself to the far post. By doing that he would either be in a 1-on-1 situation with a fullback or at least make it difficult for the center back to man mark him. He would also be open to either finish the chance or lay the ball back for another attacker.
This play is actually a basic one for teams with big strikers. For teams with small-sized strikers, running across the defenders would be a better option as they could create momentum and create/find open spaces.
Tottenham were completely unable to cope with this play by United. Andros Townsend, Nacer Chadli and Christian Eriksen all failed to support the defenders, which consequently led to more ball being played down the flanks and more crosses that found Fellaini’s big afro.
Fellaini put that right against Spurs, and United saw the benefits of playing him in a position that suits him – he needs to have that freedom to get forward and get on the far post.
He is at his best in a midfield three with a licence to get from box to box, like he does when he plays for Belgium.
United defended well in midfield. Spurs’ attack? Not-too-well
A big talking point about the way Manchester United defended in the central area was Louis van Gaal’s one-on-one marking style. Specifically, Fellaini, Herrera and Carrick would man-mark Mason, Bentaleb and Eriksen, respectively.
Van Gaal merely reapplied his own method from Netherland’s Group Stage match against Chile in the 2014 World Cup. In the match against Tottenham, this method not only made it very difficult for the inexperienced Mason and Bentaleb, but also greatly limited Eriksen’s passing options: at times he had to make a 50/50 pass, or even a safely back pass.
Harry Kane was no better up front when he could not overcome the challenges from Chris Smalling and Phil Jones. His poor first touches led to him being dispossessed 3 times. Kane was willing to come deeper to get the ball, but Smalling and Jones were also willing to follow and stop him. The United duo, indeed, had a pretty good game.
To be fair to Harry Kane, he did not have the best support from the attacking midfielders: Eriksen usually dropped too deep, while saying Chadli and Townsend were “disastrous” is still an understatement.
This victory proved that Louis van Gaal did not need to overthink about Manchester United’s current problems. People might say that pumping long balls to Fellaini is a negative approach, but let’s see what Phil Neville has to say about it:
I do not see a problem with getting the best out of him, and this is something I argue about a lot with United fans.
United have always played direct football, and that does not mean long ball. It means passes forward and runs forward.
Part of playing that way is putting lots of crosses in and then you need somebody in the box to get on the end of them. Fellaini is probably as good as anyone at doing that.
Van Gaal’s selections of personnel and tactics seem right at the moment, but everything might just turn upside down when Robin van Persie and Angel Di Maria return from injury and suspension. What will be Van Gaal’s solution then?
Big ‘thank you’ to Tùng for helping on translation.