Manchester United must maintain tempo against static Spurs

With a resurgent United team taking on an unconvincing Tottenham side in north London, Brendon Netto discusses why David Moyes' men must keep faith in their swift counter-attacks.
 Brendon Netto
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‘Static Spurs’ – that’s the last thing you would expect any Tottenham Hotspur team to be branded but their performances of late have justified labeling them so. The north Londoners have shown a complete lack of cohesion this season and entertain a Manchester United side on Sunday seemingly rediscovering theirs.

Tottenham’s 2-0 win over Tromso in the Europa League did little to discard memories of their 6-0 mauling at the Etihad Stadium last Saturday. In fact, despite the win, it was another sluggish and uninspiring display from the Premier League side, to go with so many others they’ve produced this term.

In stark contrast, confidence will be soaring in the United camp having humiliated a formidable Bayer Leverkusen side 5-0 in Germany, thereby earning qualification to the next round of the Champions League with a game to spare. Apart from the result, the performance on the night was undoubtedly United’s best under David Moyes and that’s certainly cause for optimism.

United were rampant against Leverkusen

The now 40 year-old Ryan Giggs stole the show in midfield against the second-placed team in the Bundesliga. The veteran was absolutely vital to United’s flamboyance going forward as his vision and early penetrative balls were decisive to their counter-attacks.

If Moyes decides to play Giggs again on Sunday, United could have the beating of Spurs with Phil Jones partnering him in the middle of the park but the question is whether or not he can further his defiance against time by displaying the capacity to play two big games in quick succession. United will hope he can because he’s undoubtedly their most creative central midfielder available and in his absence they desperately lack inventiveness in that area of the pitch, much like Spurs.

However, he wasn’t the only shining light going forward at the BayArena. Wayne Rooney and Shinji Kagawa were exceptional and linked up with each other brilliantly which gives Moyes a bit of a selection headache with Robin van Persie tipped to be available for the trip to White Hart Lane.

Giggs is United's most creative available central midfielder

If the Dutchman isn’t at his sharpest though, considering he’s hasn’t played in a few weeks, it may be wise to restrict him to a place on the bench and allow Kagawa and Rooney to pick up from where they left off in midweek while adding the exciting Adnan Januzaj on the left flank as well.

Of course, Van Persie has the quality to come into the side after nearly a month out and produce a piece of magic but playing Kagawa as the number 10 benefits United on the counter-attack, a ploy that could prove vital in this fixture. Meanwhile, Rooney has rendered himself indispensable at the moment and his record of 7 goals in 11 games against Tottenham only strengthens his case.

The reason why it’s so important for United to ensure that they have the right components in place to flourish on the break is because Spurs have proved to be exceedingly vulnerable to it. They are slow to get back and often have their full-backs pushed very high up the pitch, leaving ample space in behind them.

City ripped Spurs to shreds on the counter-attack

Two of West Ham United’s three goals away to Tottenham earlier this season came from turnovers in midfield which enabled them to score on the break. Manchester City didn’t dominate possession particularly in the first half last weekend but every time Tottenham’s passing broke down, the Citizens seemed certain to score at the other end.

Spurs have been relatively tame in possession. They seem to pass in the same patterns and their movement, if any, is slow, undecided and lacking in fluidity. Against Tromso they enjoyed 62% of possession but could only muster 3 shots on target. Their average possession in the league has improved from 53% last term to 59% this time around but they have failed to use that to their advantage.

Roberto Soldado is arguably the loneliest striker in the league. The Spaniard is a fantastic finisher but he needs service. Only one of his 24 goals in La Liga last season came from outside the box. Such is the extent of his isolation that he failed to have a single shot against Tromso.

Soldado has been starved of service

What goes against the striker is that he doesn’t have the pace to run in behind defenders while his physique isn’t particularly imposing either. His movement is excellent but he needs good service in order to score goals and that’s just not forthcoming at the moment.   

Meanwhile, Spurs have real problems in the creative department. Apart from Christian Eriksen, none of their players have the guile and ingenuity to unlock defenses or orchestrate attacks and the Danish international hasn’t quite settled into the Premier League yet.

Lewis Holtby’s game is more about energy and directness and while Moussa Dembele can drive forward from central midfield, he’s no pass-master. In that sense, Spurs have desperately missed the playmaking ability of Luka Modric, something that was evident last season too but Gareth Bale’s blistering pace and cutting-edge effectively pulled a veil over that particular shortcoming.

Spurs miss a playmaker in central midfield

Paulinho is fantastic driving forward but isn’t the best passer while Sandro and Etienne Capoue are holding midfielders. Out wide, Erik Lamela has struggled to find his feet while Aaron Lennon seems short of match practice and for all his eye-catching dribbling, Andros Townsend has only one goal and assist to his name, despite taking more shots than anyone else in the league.

United should be comfortable in allowing Tottenham the greater share of possession because they don’t do much with it. They monotonously pass it around in front of the opposition’s defense without getting in behind and in doing so they commit bodies forward to force rather than engineer an opening. As a result, they’re left exposed on the break. If United play half as good as they did in midweek, they should take advantage of that.

Villas-Boas under pressure

Tottenham fans could be forgiven for fearing another hiding, however unlikely, with a Manchester team paying them a visit but while any sort of defeat would heap more pressure on Andres Villas-Boas, a win could well restore them to the top end of the table.

From United’s perspective, they’ll be keen not only to extend their unbeaten run but to get all three points and really push forward, given that even their revival has been a bit stop-start owing to the occasional draw.

Can United hit Tottenham on the break? Send in your thoughts in the comments below or discuss with the writer on Twitter @BrendonNetto.

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