Manchester United face Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane with both sides unbeaten in the last six Premier League fixtures and searching for an important victory. For Andre Villas-Boas, three points would help them keep pace with third-placed Chelsea, while ensuring the gap between themselves and Everton remains at least three points; but for Sir Alex Ferguson, a win over the North London club will help the the Premier League pace setters maintain their seven-point lead at the summit of the table.
Coming into the game, both teams are having to cope with some notable absentees. For Manchester United, Wayne Rooney is a doubt to start the game despite a full ninety minutes and goal to his credit against West Ham in the midweek FA Cup clash. Instead, expect to see Shinji Kagawa assume the role of playmaker, sitting in the hole behind Robin van Persie. The Japanese international has looked comfortable since returning from injury at the tail-end of December, regularly boasting 90+% pass completion and linking well with the likes of Tom Cleverley, Michael Carrick and Van Persie.
Kagawa will form the link between midfield and attack, floating around in front of Spurs’ back four and threading balls through to Van Persie or out wide to United’s wingers. Usually, this sort of threat would be countered somewhat by the industry and graft of Sandro, but unfortunately for Villas-Boas; his Brazilian holding midfielder is scheduled to miss the rest of the season after undergoing knee surgery. While Spurs can reintroduce Scott Parker to the starting line-up after a troublesome achilles injury, it has to be noted that the 32-year-old England international has only played six games this season; match-fitness will be understandably short, and after such a long-layout his impact may well be lessened.
But the most concerning matter for Spurs fans will be how they can really replace Sandro for the remainder of the campaign. His popularity has rocketed after forming a strong midfield partnership with Mousa Dembele and the Brazilian has reinforced his reputation as the club’s first-choice enforcer with a series of consistent showings. He has made the most interceptions out of any player in the top five European leagues, but he combines this ability to smother danger with his willingness to get stuck in: fourth in the Premier Leagues standings for tackles attempted. And he has age on his side: at 23, he has shown improvement and maturity in his game, going from an average of 5.6 tackles a game in the 2011/12 campaign to an impressive 6.9 – higher than Parker’s average for the whole of last season.
Parker’s determination and willing attitude to put in a shift will never diminish, but at 32, the physical constraints of playing at such a high standard will take its toll. Parker stamps his mark on a game in the form of his relentless closing down of opponents, pressuring opposition players into making mistakes, and then distributing the ball simply and effectively. However, in the form of Kagawa, Parker has to deal with a player of superior technical and athletic ability who is always on the move.
Kagawa is constantly seeking space, trying to steal a yard on his marker, where he can put his quick feet to good measure: a well-timed pass, a nippy run at the centre-halves, or simply ghosting in on the edge of the area to get a shot away. In Sandro, Spurs arguably had a man with the positional ability, industry and determination, as well as the quickness and agility to attempt to nullify the threat posed by the United midfielder.
United will be looking for the little Japanese magician to conjure up chances for Robin van Persie, who hasn’t exactly found it hard to score against Spurs with nine goals in his last fifteen appearances against the White Hart Lane outfit. With Valencia and Young expected to start on the flanks, and Kagawa as the fulcrum, the dynamism of the front four should be enough to pull Spurs’ defence out of shape and allow for the creation of chances. In the form that Van Persie is in, don’t bet against him hitting his 18th Premier League goal of the season.
But, while Spurs have been in solid form of late, they owe a proportion of their consistent run to the strength they have in the centre of the park: both Dembele and Sandro have provided a wealth of athleticism, industry and technical ability, but with the removal of the Brazilian, the balance could be upset. From this solid midfield platform the likes of Bale, Lennon and Defoe have found it easier to shine. Spurs’ counter-attacking football has been admirable, and it isn’t surprising considering the sheer vigour and energy they have in their side. With a vital cog removed it remains as yet unseen as to whether the rest of the machine will function at full capability.
With Parker’s work cut-out for him, Spurs could find themselves under pressure, thus forcing Bale and Lennon to drop deeper in search of the ball, in turn limiting their effectiveness the further they get from goal. However, if they can break, and this hinges a lot on Dembele’s ball-carrying ability – if he and Parker can get a hold on the game – then both Tottenham wingers have enough pace and guile to cause problems for United’s full-backs.
However, if Kagawa is on song then Parker will have an extremely difficult time picking him up and stopping the 23-year-old from playing; even then, the pace of Valencia and Young down both wings should cause sufficient trouble for Naughton and Walker. Spurs have been improving steadily since Villas-Boas took the reigns and his brand of football is beginning to become apparent at White Hart Lane, but he may have to make concessions in order to try and stop the big red wrecking ball.
In all likelihood, as good as Spurs have been playing of late, it is very difficult see past a United victory on the ground that has become fondly known as ‘Three Point Lane’ amongst the Old Trafford faithful.