5 Things for Manchester United to Fear from Tottenham Hotspur
Last September, Spurs ended a winless streak at Old Trafford that stretched back to 1989 when goals from Jan Vertonghen, Gareth Bale and Clint Dempsey earned their side a 3-2 win.
It’s now almost 12 years, though, since fans at White Hart Lane witnessed the last defeat of United. That 3-1 win is asterisked somewhat because the title race was over and the league trophy was heading back to Manchester for the third-successive year.
Between those two results, there have been several lost opportunities: There was United’s comeback from 3-0 down at half-time the following season; the 3-1 defeat in September 2009 when Alex Ferguson’s side were reduced to 10 men after Paul Scholes had been sent off; and a 0-0 draw in January 2011 when Spurs enjoyed the majority of the chances.
Next weekend, they will again try to right several wrongs when United visit north London.
André Villas-Boas’s side go into the game after a frustrating draw at QPR where the home side doubled-up on Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon.
They won’t face the same defensive roadblock next Sunday and could hurt United on the counterattack.
Read on as we look at a few ways Spurs can hurt the league leaders.
1: Emmanuel Adebayor’s Loss Is a Blessing in Disguise
The striker has been a huge disappointment this season. Two league goals is a measly return for a player with such a big reputation. His departure to the African Cup of Nations, therefore, is unlikely to hurt Spurs.
One moment against QPR last weekend summed up his general lethargy: When Jermain Defoe’s shot thundered back off the post to the Togo international, he had several options. Instead, he dallied too long on the ball and Julio Cesar was able to make an easy save.
A goal at that early stage would have made more than the obvious difference to the scoreline. Instead, QPR remained unruffled and stationed both Shaun Wright-Phillips and Jamie Mackie close to their full-backs to deal with the threat of Bale and Lennon.
Villas-Boas could have withdrawn Adebayor at half-time and replaced him with the much more abrasive Dempsey, but gave him a chance to atone for an inept display. It didn’t work.
It remains to be seen if the Portuguese manager sticks with 4-4-2 or plays Gylfi Sigurdsson behind Defoe, but either player would offer much more of a threat than Adebayor.
Spurs have struggled this season against teams who sit back against them: Norwich City, West Bromwich Albion, Wigan Athletic and Stoke City have all plundered points at White Hart Lane after adopting defensive strategies.
At Aston Villa, it was only after half-time when the home side pushed forward that Spurs were able to find space behind the defence.
United are vulnerable at the back: Nemanja Vidic has struggled with injury all season and was withdrawn again at a critical stage against Liverpool last weekend; Rio Ferdinand, at 34 years old, is no longer the dominant force he once was.
Bale, Lennon, Defoe and Kyle Walker have the pace to hurt United. The key is a fast transition from defence to attack.
3: The Midfield Battle
It was something of a surprise that Ferguson didn’t try to sign Mousa Dembélé in the summer. The midfielder is blessed with an all-round game that would have complemented Michael Carrick’s calm presence in front of the back four.
Dembélé has formed an effective shield with the ever-improving Sandro in front of a Spurs defence that has tightened up considerably since November—five clean sheets in eight league games attests to that.
The pair are arguably a more formidable combination than Carrick and Tom Cleverley. United’s midfielders showed against Liverpool that they will dominate if they are given time on the ball. Indeed, Carrick’s contribution in an attacking sense is often undervalued.
However, as the game wore on, Liverpool’s midfield grew in influence and by the end, they were well on top and creating chances for the forward players.
Spurs need to make it equally uncomfortable on Sunday if the flair players further forward are to make the decisive contributions. Certainly, they shouldn’t be as wasteful as Liverpool’s attackers.
Michael Dawson—assuming he plays—and Jan Vertonghen are serious threats at dead-ball situations, as is Steven Caulker if Villas-Boas opts for the young centre-back.
On the flip side, it’s not ideal that Walker has been required to trek from right-back to take in-swinging corners from the left. Against Swansea, the out-swinging free-kick (from 101greatgoals) was just as effective and it proved the decisive moment in a tight game.
Spurs will need to mix it up against United and save Walker’s legs for surges forward in open play to support Lennon.
5: Home Form...
...and United’s away form, which makes them more vulnerable than results suggest.
They’ve only lost twice on the road in the league (to Norwich City and Everton) but have been defensively suspect when teams hustle and harry them.
Some of that comes down to a lack of control in midfield and it’s surprising that a team with such poor strength in depth in that area are seven points clear of the defending champions.
United have conceded 15 league goals away from home this season and needed the late brilliance of Robin van Persie and the positional nous of Javier Hernandez to rescue them against Southampton and Aston Villa respectively.
Spurs, meanwhile, have largely eliminated their habit of conceding late goals and since Wigan claimed that win in early November, they have gone eight games unbeaten at home.
There is one final advantage for Villas-Boas: United have the added distraction of a midweek replay against West Ham United in the FA Cup third round.
Follow John Kelly on Twitter @JKelly1882