Recently, Manchester United had done nothing to inspire confidence. They had been winning games, but winning games in spite of themselves. They were lethargic, slow, lacking ideas in the final third, and the elimination from the FA Cup at the hands of Arsenal seemed to confirm that. Tensions began to rise at Old Trafford.
Meanwhile, Spurs had seemingly recovered from their Wembley heartbreak and were looking up. Harry Kane was once again in form, and the players around him were starting to pick up as well. Confidence was high from the top of the club on down, and heading into Old Trafford Spurs had won two on the spin at the Theater of Dreams.
Sunday, everything flipped. Manchester United were the team that was fluid, confident and exciting, while Spurs looked absolutely lost and out of their depth. To Mauricio Pochettino’s credit, Spurs had never really looked out of their depth against the top sides this year unlike last (with the exception of Liverpool) but this was the first time this season that genuine questions of the manager can be asked.
Manchester United didn’t have Angel Di Maria and Marcos Rojo, who are in a malaise both in confidence and with tactics. Except today, Manchester United looked like the Manchester United of old. Marouane Fellaini played a role that Spurs have used quite effectively this season: the forward destroyer. He helped press Spurs midfield two instantly, and with their reluctance to do something United do quite willingly, Spurs were sloppy in midfield and left exposed at the back on the counter. Manchester United and Louis Van Gaal have no problems playing long balls to expose a back four, and against a high pressing team like Tottenham it can work wonders. It certainly did today. And when they did play the ball on the deck, movement was fluid and fooled Nabil Bentaleb, Ryan Mason and left Jan Vertonghen and Eric Dier exposed. One can wonder whether Federico Fazio’s physical presence might have been better next to Vertonghen today to cope with Fellaini’s play in the No. 10 role.
Ander Herrera and Michael Carrick formed a fantastic midfield two that worked perfectly to neutralize Christian Eriksen and Harry Kane, and Spurs were therefore left wanting for ideas. United’s midfield does such a great job of controlling possession, and Spurs were too slow and too sloppy in possession themselves to make Carrick and Herrera make quick decisions. Allowing them time and space caused Spurs all sorts of problems.
Tactically, Pochettino was outthought. He had no reason to change a winning side, however Spurs were too light in midfield to deal with Fellaini, Carrick, Mata and Herrera, and getting Mousa Dembele should have started to help remedy that. When he was introduced after 30 minutes, it should have given Spurs a shot in the arm, but almost immediately after he came on, a Nabil Bentaleb turnover lead to Rooney’s third goal and salted the game away. Louis Van Gaal played his cards perfectly even with a short deck, while Mauricio Pochettino tipped his hand too early, and played right into Van Gaal’s hands.
The result leaves Spurs in seventh, and likely out of the race for the top four. For Manchester United, it gives them much needed confidence heading into a brutal stretch of games which sees them play away to Liverpool, Chelsea and home in the Manchester Derby in three of the next four games. Their top four hopes have been given a massive boost, and they needed it considering their trophy case will be bare in back-to-back seasons for the first time in three decades.
United won a game against a top half side for the first time since beating Liverpool 3-0 in December. While Spurs fall to 0-1-4 at top seven sides away from home, conceding 14 goals and only scoring four themselves in those five games.
Today’s game showed what Manchester United can and should be more often, and how far Spurs have to go to seriously challenge for the top four.
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