Manchester United recorded a narrow win over Spurs at Old Trafford in the first game of the 2015/2016 Premier League season.
Louis van Gaal introduced four United debutants to the starting XI, as Morgan Schneiderlin formed a midfield partnership with Michael Carrick, Matteo Darmian started at right back, Sergio Romero was given the nod over David De Gea in goal, and Memphis Depay operated behind Wayne Rooney.
The sole surprise in Mauricio Pochettino’s 4-2-3-1 saw Eric Dier feature alongside Nabil Bentaleb in midfield, whereas Toby Alderweireld made his Spurs debut alongside compatriot Jan Vertonghen at centre back. Harry Kane led the line ahead of Nacer Chadli, Christian Eriksen, and Moussa Dembele.
Spurs were the better side during the initial stages of the first half, but were unable to maintain those levels following the match winner. United enjoyed spells of positive football, but here, pressing served as a significant factor towards the final result.
United without the ball
Last season, Manchester United spent a few months attempting to find a cohesive attacking method, but it was evident that defending as a unit was first priority without top class personnel. United displayed their growth under Van Gaal against Spurs dropping into two banks of four, yet maintaining a high-line and pressing in midfield.
Essentially, proper man-marking in midfield prevented Spurs creative players from dictating the tempo of the match, and the full-backs were solid, and the wingers were equally disciplined with their defensive duties. Schneiderlin followed Dembele when the Belgian moved into central areas, there was a moment when Carrick harried Bentaleb all the way to Spurs six-yard box, and Depay initially closed down Dier.
Van Gaal’s intent to prevent Spurs from playing out the back was logical, and a combination of United’s pressing and a compact shape thwarted Dier and Bentaleb’s passing. The duo comfortably played conservative sideways passes to their teammates, but Schneiderlin and Carrick retained possession in advanced areas before igniting attacks.
The poor passing and slow buildup from the Spurs back-six enabled United to create their best chances, and the game-winner on the break. Mata intercepted Bentaleb’s pass, and a swift United break involving Memphis, Ashley Young, and Rooney, saw the recovering Walker direct the ball into his own net.
United’s work ethic and organization out of possession limited Spurs threat, but equally served as their main method of attack in the first half.
Spurs, on the other hand, also relied on quick transitions to create chances, but as witnessed under Pochettino in recent seasons, the away side pressed intelligently. Similar to United, Spurs reverted into two banks of four out of possession, but unlike teams in the past, here, they maintained a lower block.
The low block ensured United couldn’t locate runners behind Spurs’ defence, but it also forced Van Gaal’s men to break down an organized unit – one of their few flaws from last season. Likewise, the away side’s pressing forced United’s midfielders and defenders into several mistakes that led to goal-scoring opportunities.
There were two incidents in the opening 15 minutes that saw Mata and Schneiderlin dispossessed in their half, but Pochettino’s men failed to test Romero. Pochettino seemed keen on negating Carrick’s threat in midfield, and when Eriksen failed to close down the Englishman, Dier and Bentaleb took turns stepping forward.
Still, the move that epitomized Spurs’ pressing came minutes into the second half, when Dembele dispossessed Daley Blind at the edge of the box, but the Dutchman’s last ditch tackle blocked Kane’s attempt to play Chadli free on goal – substitute Bastian Schweinsteiger was also guilty of conceding possession in his half, but Smalling brushed aside Kane to halt a legitimate goal scoring opportunity.
Pochettino’s approach equally successful, but the quality in the final third led to Spurs’ shortcomings.
The one positive aspect involving Spurs’ attack was the combination between Eriksen and Kane. Frankly, Spurs should have been ahead in the opening 5 minutes when Kane clipped a delicate ball over the United defence to Eriksen, but the Dane’s lobbed effort flew over the net.
With Spurs midfield unable to influence the game from deep, it was Eriksen’s positioning between the lines, and neat short passes with Kane that served as an additional route to goal. First, Eriksen pounced on Schneiderlin’s mistake – after Dembele dispossessed him near United’s box – before sliding a pass into Kane, but the striker could only win a corner.’
Afterwards, a few nifty passes between the two attackers saw Eriksen launch a pass behind Young for the advancing Kyle Walker, but an onrushing Romero confidently cleared his lines. Surely Spurs’ pressing placed the away side in key areas, but Kane, and specifically Eriksen, were involved in the few goal-scoring chances, prior to United’s winner.
Open play issue
The main concern in this game was the lack of quality displayed in open play. United improved following the winner, as Carrick began to find space to play positive passes into the final third. United often aimed to create overloads and quickly switch play to the opposite flank, but there was hardly an attempt to play a pass behind Spurs’ back-line, nor were there runners breaking past the centre-backs.
Despite Darmian’s excellent display, his forward ventures didn’t pose a threat, whereas Depay’s decision making in the final third was underwhelming. United constantly aimed to place Young in 1v1 situations with Walker, but the Spurs right back superbly dominated the tricky winger.
Meanwhile, service into Rooney was limited, and though he often dropped deeper to get involved, finding the striker in the box was a rare occurrence. It took United 64 minutes to record their first shot on target, which epitomizes the home side’s inactivity in attacking zones, yet Spurs were equally disappointing.
Pochettino’s XI, however, provided few attacking weapons across the pitch. United’s pressing prevented Spurs from building out the back, and the poor passing from the midfield prevented the away side from linking play with the attacking quartet. Neither side dominated for long spells, and Spurs’ laboured ball circulation and poor passing proved costly.
Chadli remains a powerful runner that can do a job, whereas Dembele conservative passes and ability to dribble past opponents doesn’t equate to goals. Similar to Rooney, Kane faced pressure when he received the ball, and despite cleverly evading challenges throughout, and though the striker’s final ball and finishing were poor, Smalling’s commanding presence equally negated his threat.
Spurs rarely threatened United’s third following the goal, and Van Gaal’s changes illustrated the Dutchman’s intent to gain control of a match capable of tilting in the away side’s favour. Schweinsteiger made his United debut in a straight swap for Carrick, whereas Herrera moved behind Rooney, leaving the Red Devils with four ball-playing midfielders in central areas.
United passed the ball with improved purpose, moving into better positions through Herrera’s movement and combination play, but Van Gaal’s men couldn’t find a route behind Spurs’ defence.
However, Pochettino’s contrasting personnel changes gave Spurs a direct threat – Ryan Mason’s dynamism was shackled due to his caution to push forward, and Erik Lamela moved to the right for Dembele. The changes saw Pochettino push Chadli behind Kane, whereas Eriksen moved to the left, thus decreasing his influence on the match and combination with Kane.
Yet, Romero denied Eriksen on two occasions in the final 10 minutes: Toby Alderweireld’s long diagonal behind Young fell to Eriksen, and a lobbed Mason ball into the box saw the United goalkeeper make a key save to deny the Dane. Eriksen was unable to influence the match from the left, but his profligate finishing nearly earned Spurs a valuable point.
Stylistically, neither managers’ substitutions were completely successful, but Pochettino’s direct set up created two legitimate chances despite their blunt build-play.
This may have been a match featuring a handful of chances, but the variation in pressing, combined with the defensive shape of both sides was interesting. Perhaps an open game would serve as an ideal curtain raiser, but uninspiring attacks impacted brief spells of dominance from both sides.
The opening weeks of any domestic league usually offer freak results, and cautious encounters amongst the top-sides, as players approach full fitness and adjust to their new clubs. While Spurs appear to have improved defensively as a unit, Kane and Eriksen will be integral to their success if others don’t improve under Pochettino.
United will certainly need time for their new signings to settle, as apart from Carrick’s passing from deep, their attack desperately requires penetration, pace, creativity and guile to break down deep blocks. Pressing served as the main catalyst, with both sides flourishing when they won the ball near the opposition’s goal, but further signings are required if either outfit intends on achieving their projected targets.