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Cartilage Free Time Machine: a tactical look at Manchester United 2-3 Tottenham (2012)

A tactical, retrospective look at one of André Villas Boas’ first games in charge of Tottenham

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Manchester United v Tottenham Hotspur - Old Trafford Photo by Neal Simpson - PA Images via Getty Images

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.

Manchester United’s lineup. Robin Van Persie would end up firing the Red Devils into a historic 20th League Title with 26 goals, picking up the Golden Boot along the way.

Vintage Tottenham lineup. This was the season in which Sandro/Dembele were arguably one of, if not the, best midfield partnerships in the league.

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 34 (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.

A typical movement in Spurs attacking phase - Sandro hangs back to act as insurance if Dembele loses the ball driving forward, Defoe and Dempsey play off each other, while Bale and Lennon give an option for either an inside/outside run. Somewhat surprising to see Lennon pinch in; AVB was always a big fan of the inverted winger but Lennon’s skillset was better for traditional wing play.

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.

Straight out of the training ground. Vertonghen plays a 1-2 with Bale, while the Belgian runs into the space being vacated by Defoe.
Vertonghen’s in acres of space, and Evans is unsure whether to close him down or cover Dempsey. All other United players are taken out of the play, and Vertonghen bags his first goal for Spurs.

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.

Defoe drags Evans with him, and Lennon burns both Evra and Ferdinand with his pace and gets a corner.
Defoe again disrupts United’s defense to make space for Bale. Ferdinand is again beaten by pace and Bale puts Tottenham two up. By having his team sit back deep, AVB ensured that his attackers could have the space necessary to run at United’s slow defenders.

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.

Setup for the third goal - Sandro picks out Defoe, and somewhat surprisingly, Defoe is able to hold up the play.
Defoe slides a pass to Bale who makes a blind side run behind Rafael (yes, he really is holding his hands on his hip). Bale’s shot is saved by Lindegaard, but Dempsey is there to score the tap-in.

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.

Spurs sit extremely deep in the defensive third, notice how deep Bale and Dempsey are playing. Also notice the massive gap between Defoe and the rest of the team. This created some good opportunities on the break, however in the second half United exploited the space between Spurs attacking/defensive line.

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.

United remembered how to play football, and began finding triangles on both of Tottenham’s flanks. The above action resulted in Nani getting one back for them in the 52nd minute.

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.

Massive distance between the two banks of Spurs players. On paper, it makes sense to instruct Dembele to push up and Sandro to sit back. However, without any nuance attached to those instructions, situations like this became common. The entirety of Tottenham’s forward line + Dembele are completely taken out of the game.
A similar situation in a much more dangerous area. Sandro is deep, literally right next to his centerbacks to help protect them. With Dembele pushing up however, there is a massive gap for Kagawa to exploit, with two passing options and a channel to run into. Manchester United’s second goal would originate from similar play, put away by Kagawa himself.

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.