Despite finishing fifth last season, Tottenham Hotspur were not a good football club defensively. In fact, Spurs were not even halfway competent. Tottenham pressed intensely, and sometimes won the ball back quickly. But when they didn't, opposing teams created quality scoring chances with alarming regularity.
Nowhere was that more evident than the same fixture last year. Spurs entered that game with a chance to go level with United with a win. Instead, United ripped Spurs apart, especially in the opening half hour. The first goal from that game was a microcosm of Spurs' season. Some forward players pressed, others didn't. The result: a throughball to Marouane Fellaini and a goal for Manchester United.
On Saturday, Tottenham looked completely different from last season's side. Aside from a goal resulting from an errant Nabil Bentaleb pass, United had almost no success breaching Spurs' defense. In addition, Spurs' pressing created the majority of their most promising attacking situations.
Kane plays in Eriksen
Under pressure from Harry Kane, United goalkeeper Sergio Romero boots a pass to Juan Mata. Mata receiving the pass with his back to goal triggers a press from Ben Davies. The key to this action working is how a secondary player, in this case Nacer Chadli, applies pressure to the ball while simultaneously cutting off a passing lane. The turnover results in one of Spurs' best chances of the game when Kane plays a terrific chip beyond the United defense to Christian Eriksen.
Dembélé's pressure creates three chances
Mousa Dembélé did a superb job of pressing United's players, and his pressure created three of Spurs' best chances. Here, Chadli chases down a Kyle Walker clearance, forcing United into starting play from the very back. When Romero plays a pass that forces Schneiderlin to receive the ball with his back to goal, Dembélé rushes in and wins back possession. Eriksen plays in Kane who shoots instead of crossing to the unmarked Chadli at the far post.
A few minutes later, Dembélé strips Schneiderlin again, this time from within Spurs own half. Eric Dier does an excellent job of cutting off the passing angle to United's forwards. The resulting break was wrongly flagged offside.
Finally, Dembélé strips Daley Blind just outside the penalty area. Notice how Dembélé curves his run towards Blind just enough to make Blind think twice about trying to play the ball wide to Luke Shaw. Kane and Dembélé are not on the same wavelength, and Spurs fail to get a shot off.
Other things that caught my eye:
Eric Dier, defensive midfielder. In the buildup to the match, I questioned whether Dier was a good fit for the defensive midfield role. In preseason games, Dier had shown a penchant for bad giveaways and reckless tackles, and I was concerned that these flaws would be exacerbated in a real match. In actuality, neither turned out to be a problem. Dier's presence added much-needed solidity to Spurs central midfield.
At first glance, Dier does nothing remarkable here. You can briefly see him tracking Memphis Depay early in the clip. After Blind breaks the press with a smart pass to Schneiderlin, Depay drops deep and Dier decides not to follow him.
Though Dier doesn't record any kind of defensive statistic, this play illustrates a positional intelligence that simply wasn't there last season for Tottenham. Dier recognizes the situation is not advantageous for pressing. Ashley Young is streaking up United's left wing, and Kyle Walker is out position, having been a part of the press higher up the pitch. Dier may also be aware that Depay is skillful enough to turn him in the open field, or play a one-two with a United player. United end up playing the ball to their right wing, and the attack fizzles out as Spurs get back in numbers.
In contrast, Spurs handled similar situations poorly last season. Here, Ryan Mason gets turned by Steven N'Zonzi, resulting in a Stoke break.
Part of being a good central midfielder is knowing when to press, and when to back-off. On this evidence, Dier gets it.
Bentaleb's no good, very bad day. This match was one of Bentaleb's worst since he made his debut under Tim Sherwood. Bentaleb's passing was poor even before he gave up the ball for Juan Mata's goal.
After yet more good pressing by Spurs, he blows an opportunity to release any of Chadli, Eriksen, or Kane, by playing a pass right to Michael Carrick's feet. While he probably wasn't helped by playing 120 minutes in the Audi Cup during the week prior to the match, this kind of loose passing has plagued Bentaleb since he entered the Premier League. If Bentaleb and, by extension, Tottenham are to progress to the next level, he needs to cut this out of his game.
Toby Alderweireld's long diagonals. Tactics writers Jake Meador (the Inside Channel) and Tom Payne (Spielverlagerung) both highlighted Toby Alderweireld's diagonal passes to the left wing in their analyses of this match. Meador argued they were a useful weapon, while Payne argued most of these passes were poorly executed. Both pieces are worth reading. The one thing I'd add is that these passes were useful for Spurs even when they weren't completed. As is evident in this article's second GIF, a long clearance to the opposite wing can sometimes result in a quality pressing opportunity, which can result in a scoring chance in turn. Given Tottenham's inability to play through United's press, this option was pretty useful.
Increased Pressing Cohesion. In a revealing interview with L'Équipe a few years ago, Morgan Schneiderlin, then at Southampton, discussed what it's like to defend under Pochettino. Schneiderlin noted that Pochettino's pressing structure is so complex that it took over six months for Southampton to implement it correctly.
A similar situation may be playing out with Spurs now. For the first time, Spurs look like they have mastered Pochettino's system. While it's too early to know for sure whether Spurs have truly improved their pressing, the signs after one game are highly encouraging.