Super Sunday Preview: Tottenham Versus Manchester United

Only a single point separates Tottenham and Manchester United heading into their clash at White Hart Lane on Sunday. Both clubs are in the mix of Top Four competitors along with seven other teams. Spurs are currently in ninth place in the league but they are only four points out of second place in what has turned out to be the most wide-open Premier League race in years.

Spurs and United are two clubs moving in different directions. The Red Devils are undefeated in eleven straight matches during all competitions and are coming of the largest away win in the club’s Champions League history. The 5-0 victory over Bayer Leverkusen secured United’s place in the knockout stage of the European competition and erased the bad memories of last weekend’s injury-time letdown at Cardiff City.

Tottenham are coming off a 2-0 Europa League win against Tromso and have secured their place in the final 32 of the competition. But they have had difficulty in matches following Europa League fixtures. Tottenham have won three and lost three in Sunday matches following Thursday night European contests. Spurs have also not scored a goal in their last three Premier League contests and were shelled in their last league match; a 6-0 defeat to Manchester City.

The match against City sent supporters and the media into a frenzy. Tottenham manager Andre Villas-Boas has faced loud criticism over the setup of his team, particularly the use of Roberto Soldado as Spurs lone-striker. The Spanish international has not scored a goal from open play in over 900 minutes for Spurs and the club has continually struggled to score goals in the Premier League. Tottenham have only scored nine goals in twelve matches; with Soldado scoring four times, three of his goals have come from penalties.

Many have suggested that Tottenham should use another striker alongside Soldado to give him someone to play off of. Villas-Boas has stated that he will experiment with a 4-4-2 formation, but he won’t do that until after Tottenham play Manchester United.

Some point out that Tottenham’s lack of a true ‘number ten’ is hurting the club’s offensive production. Others feel that the club simply needs to get Soldado better service inside the penalty box since that’s how the player made his name in La Liga. The Spanish forward only has 360 touches this season. As compared to Wayne Rooney (748), Luis Suarez (508; and he missed the first five BPL games of the season), and Sergio Aguero.(473).

British pundits Jamie Carragher, Gary Neville and Alan Shearer also laid into Tottenham’s players for last weekend’s poor showing at the Etihad Stadium. The unanimous feeling was the players simply  were “not ready to play” against Manchester City. Video evidence was dissected and individual Spurs players were called out for their actions.

The pundits also pointed out that Spurs have become slower and more predictable under Villas-Boas. Although they are third in the Premier League in possession (58.6%), there is no pace in their passing which has made it easier for opponents to defend Spurs.The universal feeling was that Villas-Boas has had too many people to blend together over a short period of time. But despite their “transition period”, Tottenham are within four points of second place with more than half of the season remaining and they are cruising though the Europa League competition.

In spite of Tottenham’s league position, Villas-Boas job has really come under question this week. Stories have surfaced that the Tottenham board is upset with the team’s start and that their investment in numerous signings is showing little progress. Speculation reached its peak when former Spurs chairman Lord Sugar aired his concerns about Villas-Boas on national radio. Although the manager claims that he is “indifferent” to the criticism since his time at Chelsea, the backlash against Villas-Boas has placed a tremendous amount of importance on the match against Manchester United this Sunday. A poor showing and/or bad result would send a fresh wave of negativity over the London-based club, which could ultimately lead to another untimely dismissal for Villas-Boas.

David Moyes has had to deal with similar criticism/concern from supporters and the media during his first few months on the job. He was left with the responsibility of replacing Sir Alex Ferguson, the transfer dilemma of Wayne Rooney, then had to cope with Manchester United underperforming during the opening weeks of the Premier League campaign. But despite the poor results and incredible pressure, Moyes has had the full backing of Manchester United’s board. His job has never been in question at the club. Perhaps it’s that security that has allowed Moyes and his new staff to move forward with the task of building a United team in the Scot’s image.

Over the past few weeks, United has shown a blend of characteristics from the Ferguson era, as well as traits which have come to be expected of Moyes previous teams at Everton. The Red Devils’ 3-2 comeback win versus Stoke City at the end of October brought back memories of past United squads who fought until the final whistle. While their 1-0 victory over first place Arsenal showed the club was grasping the determination and tactics which Moyes had imprinted on his Everton sides.

The hiring of Moyes has also played a role in the resurgence of Wayne Rooney. It’s like the hands of time have been turned back and Rooney is once again the fiery 16-year-old forward who played with his emotions on his sleeve.

Last weekend, most United supporters looked on in fear and disbelief as Rooney kicked out at Cardiff City’s Jordan Munch. The forward was fortunate to only receive a yellow card from match referee Neil Swarbrick as he went on to score United’s opening goal and later assisted its second. His post-match comments attacking television pundits Martin Tyler and Graeme Souness have been condemned by some, but others see this as a return of Rooney’s competitive fires. It would be hard to argue against that theory as Rooney then went on to assist in four of United’s five goals against Bayer Leverkusen on Wednesday night.

Manchester United are coming into White Hart Lane on a high; undefeated in eleven straight games in all competitions. Tottenham are a club still searching for their identity. Supporters of the London club have steadily voiced their displeasure with the team’s performances. So much so that Spurs manager Andre Villas-Boas questioned his home supporters following a 1-0 win over Hull City. “We played in a difficult atmosphere with almost no support. We have a wonderful set of fans but they can do better. We don’t need the negativity of today.” The Portuguese manager told BBC Sport: “Away from home their support has been amazing; we play with no fear and we need that atmosphere at White Hart Lane.”

Come kickoff time on Sunday, the support of Tottenham’s home fans will NOT be an issue. White Hart Lane will be a cauldron of noise even before Manchester United takes the pitch. The memory of last season’s disappointing 1-1 draw will be fresh in the minds of United’s players. While Spurs can take confidence in the fact that they were able to take four out of a possible six points from the champions last season. And although United are in the midst of a lengthy unbeaten run, they have not yet hit high gear and have been dealing with key injuries. 2012-13 PFA Team of the Year member Michael Carrick is still out with an injury, while Robin Van Persie and Nemanja Vidic have been nursing their own knocks.

Tottenham will look to expose United’s left-side, since Spurs’ strength has been the play of their right-hand side players: Townsend, Walker, and Lennon. Patrice Evra has been the focus of transfer speculation over the past few months and the defender has recently shown a tendency to forget his defensive responsibilities. Chris Smalling, Antonio Valencia, and Rafael (when he’s not injured) have secured the right-side of the Red Devils’ defense; but United have not found a suitable partner for Evra on the left-side. Tottenham will undoubtedly be looking to expose this weakness.

Despite the five goals in Germany, United was rarely tested by the Bundesliga’s second place team. Bayer Leverkusen didn’t pressure the Red Devils’ depleted midfield which allowed Shinji Kagawa and Ryan Giggs to pick apart the German club’s porous back four. It can be guaranteed that Tottenham won’t be as passive (or in awe) against United as the German side were during the Champions League encounter.

Premier League clubs have had success pressuring United into mistakes this season. With a raucous home crowd spurring them on, Tottenham will more than likely be taking it to the champions during the opening minutes. The Red Devils will once again have to prepare themselves for a motivated opponent in an electrified atmosphere.

There’s a lot on the line for both clubs. Tottenham need a win and are looking to break a goal drought in the league while looking to keep pace with the top four. Spurs have two losses (Arsenal and Manchester City) and two draws (Chelsea and Everton) against teams ahead of them; with matches against Liverpool and Southampton still to come. A victory would provide Tottenham with some strength moving forward, give their manager a brief reprieve from the media firestorm, and send the White Hart Lane supporters home happy.

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