Let’s hop into the time machine and go back to the summer of 2012. Manchester City have edged out Manchester United in the infamous “Aguerooooooooo!” moment. Tottenham Hotspur, having just missed out on Champion’s League football (due to Chelsea winning the cup, a rule that would be revised later) and a late season collapse of sorts seeing them finish below Arsenal again, decide to replace Harry Redknapp with André Villas-Boas. AVB had been recently ousted by Chelsea, but being a protege of Mourinho and displaying some tactical sense with the Blues, Levy & Co. chose to take a chance with the young Portuguese manager.
His tenure at Tottenham would turn sour near the end, with Spurs feeling more and more like a one-man team near his sacking. Although AVB’s system setup Gareth Bale to shine, once he packed his bags for sunny Spain it seemed as if the rest of the team had no idea how to play without him. The longer that results did not go his way, the more he tightened his grip on the team’s tactics, resulting in an extremely rigid 4-3-3 formation and a team that was seen as good at retaining possession, and awful at doing anything everything else.
Before those dark times though, AVB started his career at Tottenham with a bang. He led the Lilywhites to a first league win at Old Trafford in 23 years. Old Trafford now is not the same Old Trafford that was in 2012/13 - if there’s a contemporary equivalent, it would have to be Anfield (as much as United fans might resent the comparison.) Visiting teams trembled under the floodlights of the Theater of Dreams. So when Spurs came away with three points it came as a shock to everyone.
This was a completely different Tottenham (and Man. United) than we see today, so it’s worth revisiting what the actual teams looked like.
Tottenham approached Old Trafford with a clear yet somewhat comical plan - flexible 4-4-2, pack the middle defensive third as much as possible in an extremely low block, and leverage Bale/Defoe/Lennon’s pace to explode on counter attacks. Let’s be real; this game took place in September and AVB still had a very rudimentary understanding of his players so it’s not like anyone was expecting a Pep Guardiola masterclass. To his credit, just because a plan is the most obvious doesn’t make it ineffective in its own right. Manchester United, on the other hand, truly made this a game of two halves - utterly shambolic in the first half, and much more effective in the second. Although they ran a medium press throughout the game, Tottenham’s plan fell apart quickly in the second half and thus the hosts were able to push for an equalizer.
That’s the thing about Sir Alex Ferguson’s United in 2012; extremely potent going forward but defensively a complete mess (they conceded 43 goals, only three less than 5th place Tottenham.)
Purposefully or not, Tottenham’s reliance on pace made it quite easy for Spurs players to dislodge United’s defensive formation. Knowing that 3⁄4 (not Dempsey) of Tottenham’s attackers had explosive pace, United defenders were disorganized in covering players and late at predicting where the danger would be.
It was this inter play that led to Spurs first goal, and a trend that would result in the most important factor in Spurs scoring three goals - Defoe’s off the ball runs.
Everyone had a part to play in the first goal, but it wouldn’t have been possible without Defoe dragging Ferdinand out of his defensive area. The same could be said about Bale’s movement dragging Rafael, however, it was Defoe who time and again opened up space for his teammates. His efforts resulted in all three goals, and some great attacking chances.
There’s no other way to put it, Manchester United had a disaster performance defensively. With a midfield of Carrick and Scholes, their middle third was completely devoid of any defensive ability, pretty much allowing Spurs free reign when they were able to get out of their own half and attack.
The first half was largely a mix of Tottenham playing well up front, while also completely shutting down any attacking movement that Manchester United mustered. United would make it much harder for Spurs in the second half, and barring Dempsey’s goal, completely exposed Tottenham’s frail defensive tactics.
Within the first 10 minutes of the game, Tottenham’s defensive structure was so baffling it was comical. You know in Fifa when your friend yells “everyone get back” and sprints to defend their 18 yard box with their striker? AVB wanted something similar.
In re-watching this game, it was great to see how well Sandro patrolled the top of the 18 yard box. Time and again he would be tasked with tracking Kagawa’s runs and stopping any attack coming down the middle. Unfortunately, Tottenham’s flanks were nowhere near as solid, and this began to show early in the second half as Rooney helped overload Tottenham’s left side. I don’t mean to overplay a cliche, but Rooney at that time had something of a mystical effect on his teammates. United looked like a new side and played much sharper than Spurs for the remainder of the match.
Spurs’ plan of playing as deep as possible with only Defoe upfront began to unravel as time went on. Their understanding of spacing, and distance between each player was completely off. They knew to pack United’s attacking central third, but had little clue on what to do if United held the ball in the middle of the pitch.
AVB had some ideas on how to utilize Tottenham’s strengths, but when it came to tactical nous, he hardly outwitted United, as shown by Spurs’ defensive lapses. With two shots off the bar, and three penalty shouts, one might even say that Spurs were lucky to come away with 3 points. Regardless, with three great counter attacking goals + the hoodoo at Old Trafford broken, Spurs fans can look back fondly at the result.
Editor’s note: for those who need a refresher on this match, here are the match highlights courtesy of NBC.