It’s hard to know what to make of Tottenham Hotspur this season.
At the beginning of the 2013/14 campaign things were looking quite promising for the North London outfit. They conducted some great business during the summer, spending the Gareth Bale money wisely, and there were even some Manchester United fans casting an enviable eye at their abundance of talent in midfield.
But one point and zero goals from their last three games, including a 6-0 defeat to Manchester City, have raised alarm bells around White Hart Lane, and it doesn’t get much easier with the visit of United this Sunday.
Andre Villas-Boas built his team on solid defence, and before the drubbing at the Etihad, Spurs had conceded just six goals in the league. The downside, however, was a lack of creativity going forward.
They have been struggling to create chances of note during games and, as a result, have become impatient in their build-up play. There is no flow to their attacks, and they are often forced to resort to speculative shots from distance.
But for all the question marks next to Villas-Boas, he won’t be the only manager with a point to prove.
David Moyes will have been livid with the manner in which his team conceded a last-minute equaliser against Cardiff. But in reality, the Bluebirds’ last-gasp effort wasn’t exactly against the run of play.
Malky Mackay’s side had 14 looks at David de Gea’s goal over the course of the 90 minutes—per David Ornstein of BBC Sport—and they continuously exposed the pocket of space between United’s midfield line and back line with ease.
With Michael Carrick absent through injury, the champions lacked composure on the ball in the centre of the park, and they will need to address their midfield woes ahead of the visit to North London.
Antonio Valencia vs. Jan Vertonghen
Vertonghen is a talented centre-back, but he is often found exposed when deployed on the left. It is not his natural position, and he was particularly left wanting when faced with the pace of Jesus Navas last weekend.
He will face a similar challenge when Valencia comes bearing down on him this weekend, and if the Ecuadorian can get past him then Spurs will struggle to keep a clean sheet.
Valencia looked back to his best in United's 5-0 win over Bayer Leverkusen and is a constant outlet for the champions down the right.
Paulinho/Sandro vs. Wayne Rooney
Rooney has excelled in his free role behind Robin van Persie this season, and Spurs will need to be wary of his threat.
The Englishman has six goals and seven assists in the league this term, so Villas-Boas will need either Paulinho or Sandro to stick to him like glue.
If Rooney gets time and space on the ball, he will do damage. However, if Spurs can cut him out of the contest it will deprive United of their two main sources of creativity—given Carrick's absence.
Andros Townsend vs. Patrice Evra
Townsend began the City game on the bench, but after Spurs’ poor showing at the Etihad, he is likely to return to the starting XI this weekend.
The Englishman is a threat down the right flank even though his end product can often be found wanting. He has scored one goal and assisted just one other this season, but his pace and skill will still keep Evra busy in Sunday's clash.
This key battle also works in reverse, because Townsend will need to put in a shift behind the ball also.
Evra, who got on the scoresheet last weekend, is a threat going forward, and Townsend will need to help Kyle Walker in limiting the Frenchman’s effectiveness in the attacking third.
While there is plenty of room for improvement in both teams, it would appear that Villas-Boas’ problems run a little deeper.
There is limited structure to Spurs’ play going forward, and it’s difficult to see how they can turn the situation around in less than a week.
Their full-backs, Vertonghen and Walker, struggled against the pace of Jesus Navas and creativity of Samir Nasri on Sunday, and United are set up in a similar way with Valencia hogging the right flank and either Adnan Januzaj or Shinji Kagawa cutting in from the left.
The Red Devils produced their best performance of the season in their 5-0 win away to Bayer Leverkusen this week.
Van Persie and Nemanja Vidic both missed out on the Champions League fixture, and if they return to action this weekend they will offer United a further boost.
The champions need all three points to keep pace with league leaders Arsenal, and they should come away from London with the win.
Tottenham Hotspur 1 Manchester United 2