There’s nothing more gutting than dropping two points in the last minute…OK, so dropping three points in the last few minutes might be slightly worse- something that Manchester United are guilty of inflicting on opposing fans over the past two decades with regularity- but yesterday’s 1-1 draw against Tottenham Hotspur was painful nonetheless.
What can we take from the game? Well, despite the draw, yesterday reminded us that United are still very capable of setting up with a strong game plan away from home. It also showed, though, just how critical the use of natural wide players like Valencia and Young are in carrying out the counter attacking part of this strategy. Lastly, De Gea’s brilliant but ultimately blemished performance raises an interesting question, with speculation about a move to Barcelona mounting.
Shifting formation caught Spurs napping
Looking at United’s previous decade of results at White Hart Lane suggests a team with a substantial tactical advantage. Since 2001, United had won eight and drew three away at Spurs. Gary Neville, a man who played throughout those years - probably dissecting games in his living room at his uninterested kids before Sky came along - spoke in yesterday’s build-up about the 20 minute rule at White Hart Lane. Neville said that United always go into the game feeling that as long as they can withstand the inevitable early onslaught from Spurs for 20 minutes or so, they feel it’s theirs to win.
And so, the prophet had spoken. Starting the game with five spread across midfield (Welbeck on the right, Kagawa on the left), United managed to stifle the threat from Spurs, or ‘Bale’, as he’s otherwise known. In fact, Jones and Rafael nullified Bale with success throughout the 90 minutes, but for the first 20 Welbeck was used to further fortify the human blockade, which often stopped any progress at its source. The game was skewed to United’s right, which did mean that when Lennon was occasionally given the ball, he was often one-on-one against Evra. The early signs in this department were worrying; Lennon looked to have the beating of the Frenchman. Overall, though, United weathered the first 20 minutes well with a disciplined performance, marshalled by the ever-more mature Michael Carrick.
After 20 minutes, United switched to a 4-4-1-1, with Welbeck on the left and Cleverley on the right. The fruits were borne immediately. Spurs had clearly not readjusted their own defensive shape accordingly, providing space for first Welbeck and then Cleverley to create the goal for Van Persie (with the help of a beautiful flick by Kagawa). By half-time, with United generally looking comfortable - aside from two good saves from De Gea - it looked like another perfect United away performance was on the cards. But, alas, Gary Neville hadn’t read the tired cliché pundit script: ‘Spurs hadn’t read the script…’
Regardless of the end result though, the tactical set-up and overall strategy for the game from United bodes well for Real Madrid, and the remainder of the league season. And as Ferdinand said after the game: “I don't think we can be too down about coming away from here with a point because Spurs are a confident team under new management and they've been doing well. We'll take that point.”
United need natural wide men for tough away matches
The deployment of genuine wide players in Valencia and Young worked a treat against Chelsea and Manchester City away this season. With Valencia somewhat out of form and Young injured (and um, what’s his name, the Portuguese guy… right, ‘Nani’ being totally forgotten), Fergie went with Welbeck and Kagawa - both of whom had impressed against Liverpool. When it came to attacking on the break in the second half as Spurs pushed for an equaliser though, it was clear that the combined threat of two pacey natural wide players was sorely missed. Welbeck has the speed, but his final ball into the box was often played behind the stride of the intended target, while Kagawa has the final ball but not the burst of pace with the ball at his feet.
Clearly Valencia’s introduction after 75 minutes was made in recognition of this problem. His impact on this occasion was disappointing, although you could easily argue he should have been brought on earlier. Van Persie was also guilty of uncharacteristic positional laziness, being caught offside a couple of times from promising counter attacks. As a consequence, United managed a measly two shots on target - the fewest so far this season. So, against Spurs, it’s probably fair to say the overall game plan was sound, but that the personnel typically used to implement the key aspect of United’s away performances - the counter attack - wasn’t quite right. I suspect Fergie will take this learning point and start with Valencia at the Bernabeau, regardless of form.
Overall, De Gea was fantastic yesterday. Catalan newspaper Mundo Deportivo certainly seem to think so; they have again splashed him across their front page this morning, whipping up the campaign for Barcelona to sign the Spanish keeper. Although this is a well-worn campaign strategy from the Catalan media and by no means indicates it’s a fait accompli, it does raise the question sharply into focus of just how much United want to keep him.
De Gea made some great reflex saves yesterday, the most impressive being his stop from an already-celebrating Dempsey in the second half. In total he made seven saves, and it’s fair to say he played a significant part in keeping United ahead - until the 92nd minute that is. Gary Neville and Alan Hansen’s assessment of Spurs’ equaliser as resulting from De Gea’s mistake may have seemed very harsh, but, taken independently from the keeper’s overall performance, they were spot on in my opinion. His punch was weak and it did fall directly to Lennon’s feet.
It’s all a balancing act though. Yes, De Gea should have thrown his body towards the ball with greater conviction, and the goal was largely, though not completely, his fault, but I also don’t think most Premier League keepers would have saved Dempsey’s shot. One in, one out. De Gea clearly marks highly on shot-stopping-as well as distribution - and the good news is that goalkeeping skills like claiming crosses and punching are more easily coached than shot-stopping.
So, what if, hypothetically speaking, Barcelona were to come in with an offer matching what United paid for him? Do United fans now feel he has earned his price tag? Personally, I am really quite torn. If I was told that his penalty-box management side of the game will not improve, I would reluctantly have to admit that the £18m outlay was excessive. If, however, he is able to significantly improve this less glamorous but equally important side of his game, I think he could be worth every penny. In goalkeeping terms he really is very young indeed at 22, so this to me seems entirely possible. If I’m 100% honest though, I would have to admit that, as it stands, his game better suits Barcelona and the Spanish league in general, with its greater reliance on distribution and shot-stopping and lesser need for expert cross claimers. As a result, I think it’s likely Barcelona will genuinely pursue De Gea, and if the price is right, I think it would be good business.
Follow Fabio on Twitter at @Fabzucci