Preview: Tottenham Hotspur vs United

A solid, if unspectacular, victory over Everton keeps United firmly in the hunt for top 4. With games quickly running out, however, United need to keep the winning streak going. I mean, granted it’s currently at 2 wins, but hey, beggars can’t be choosers. What better time, then, to come up against title chasers Tottenham Hotspur…

Cast your mind back to August 2015. A perceivably solid transfer window had left the squad resembling something closer to what van Gaal wanted structurally. With hopes renewed after a season of fluctuations, alternating between extremely dour and actually pretty good seemingly dependent on the day of the week, many fans, myself included, were hoping for tangible evidence that improvement, and the range of emotions that it brings, were on the way. Week one, game one, Tottenham Hotspur; a side that have, amazingly, finished 5th every season for the past 78 years.United won that game 1-0, off a wonderful solo effort from Own Goal (a full write up from yours truly can be found here). That win should have been the start of something positive, and, for Spurs, one that saw their eternal quest for fourth hit a bump before it’s even started. 8 months on, and those roles are reversed. Spurs find themselves in the mix for the title for the first time since February 2012, and United have squandered away their championship aspirations to join West Ham and Man City in the battle for 4th. The two sides reconvene this Sunday in an attempt to (just about) kill off each others aspirations to salvage their own.

Despite their incredibly slow start (3 points from a possible 12 in their first four games), Mauricio Pochettino’s men have been as entertaining have they have impressive. And despite being 7 points (at the time of writing) off top, you cannot underestimate the job that side have done this season. Arguably they’ve been the most entertaining of the sides at the top of the table, they’re a side who’ve scored the most and conceded the least,  who knows what might have been had their slow start been ended quicker than it had been. Gone is the deadwood, a side abundant with underachievers on wages they couldn’t possibly live up to, transformed into one that is filled to the brim with youthful exuberance. Talent is the key word when discussing this Spurs outfit, and while “one season wonder-turned-actual best striker in the Premier League” Harry Kane and “the new Paul Gascoigne” Dele Alli are (mostly rightfully) take the plaudits every week, however huge praise needs to be heaped upon the shoulders of both Eric Dier and Toby Alderweireld. Dier has converted himself into a holding midfielder of actual class, and Belgian Toby, who was so impressive in his stint at Southampton last season, has looked every bit as good, if not better, at Spurs. Combine this with a world class goalkeeper in Hugo Lloris, and it’s no wonder spurs have only conceded 25 goals this season. Whatever happens this season, they can take confidence in knowing they’ve a side still growing (the average age of this side is 24.9), and a manager that is up there with the best in the league, tactically. With Champions League football looming next season, after 6 seasons without, Spurs will be hoping the best is yet to come from this side.

For United, the expectation is another relatively unchanged side, and with (relative) good reason. United have managed to string together two 1-0 victories over two good sides, and at this stage of the season, is far more important than any performance you might dream of. Against Everton, United managed only one meaningful effort, and that was the goal. It appeared to be a good summary of the season, that game, actually. For spells, in the second half especially, United looked swashbuckling in their attack, yet unable to create anything of worth. What we can take from that game is how perfectly the Smalling-Blind partnership contained Lukaku. He was barely given a sniff. One of the most highly regarded centre forwards in the Premier League, and even in European football, snuffed silent. One thing you cannot deny is United’s record defensively this season. Second only to Spurs in terms of goals conceded, and unmatched in terms of the amount of clean sheets kept, one wonders where we might be if injuries hadn’t ravaged the squad in the middle of the season. Or we could score more goals.

The only change I could possibly see being made might be Herrera coming in for either Carrick or Schneiderlin. Don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan of both players, and, on paper, this is a partnership that should reap rewards, with Scheniderlin winning the ball, and Carrick moving onto the front four. In reality, there’s an issue of pace and urgency, neither player seemingly willing to play a pass early. The idea appears to be that we can score with more numbers up the pitch, despite there being very little evidence for this over the course of the season so far. Herrera offers positivity in his movement and his execution, and if we’re going to win tomorrow, which we need to do, we need to get at this Spurs side, in spite of their lack of obvious frailties.
At the same time, however, United need to contain the dynamic duo that is Harry Kane and Dele Alli. While I have every faith in Chris Smalling to keep Kane in his back pocket, which he has done since 2014, however van Gaal may feel Carrick and Schneiderlin might be better suited to keeping Dele Alli from adding to his 7 goals and 9 assists.

That said, Rojo was replaced fairly early on in the Everton tie. While I’m not sure whether van Gaal feels it’s still too early for the Argentine to complete a game, or whether there was a concern injury-wise remains to be seen, however, if the latter is the case, I imagine Tim Fosu-Mensah will step in at right back, with Darmian moving over to the left.

Up top, I can’t imagine Martial will get a chance through the middle after another goal off the left, and Rashford continues to mature into the role thrust upon him. Lingard and Mata may well carry on sharing minutes at right wing/central attacking midfield, so hopefully we’ll see the rewards for consistency begin to come to the fore. As with last week, I imagine this to be the line up.LINEUP111459598133592

This is must win, for both sides. While that can often lead to a stalemate, I’m not so sure that’ll be the case. The key is going to be whether United can weather the Spurs attacks. Chances will come from the wings, as Rose and Walker bomb forward, it’ll come from whether we can take advantage of those spaces.

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United 1-0 Tottenham Hotspur

For the second season running, Saturday lunchtime saw United open the Premier League season a home. Whereas last season, Old Trafford played host to an uninspiring, drab, loss, the 2015-16 curtain raiser was an uninspiring, drab, WIN. The early weeks of the season can be forgiven for being disjointed in performance, and this tie epitomised that, with both sides failing to create many clear chances. In a game that won’t be remembered by many for long, the result was more important than the performance.

I’m not going to do a review of the game, there are plenty of websites across the internet that offer an in depth analysis of a football match. I’ll focus only on the positive and negatives of our performance, given this is a blog dedicated to Manchester United (and I’m not very good at remembering key moments from games).

Positives

Louis van Gaal must have read my preview, and thought it might be hilarious to throw my credibility into a fire before this blog has even come close to taking off, because Sergio Romero started ahead of Sam Johnstone, in replacement of David de Gea, who was deemed unfit to play. Credit to Romero, then, to make your debut against a side often falling in the top 5 in the league, about a week after signing for the club, off the back of two seasons where you made about 12 appearances at club level, and not be dreadful. Serge made two fine saves as the game edged towards its close, probably snatching a win from the jaws of a draw by himself. Twin this with a desire to leave his line and collect the ball early, and very confidently, and you’ve got yourself a very good performance. Something we’ve become accustomed to from our goalkeeper in recent seasons.

Chris Balling proved once again he can be a vital member of this squad if United are to compete this season. The man mountain managed to turn around what could have easily been a dismal season last year, with a string of fabulous performances that completely changed my perception of what he can be. Balling began 2015/16 in a very similar manner. It wouldn’t surprise me if he begins to charge Harry Kane rent for the residence of his back pocket, considering kane hasn’t left it since April. Twin that with two vital stops (that looked effortless), and you’ve got a Man of the Match performance from a man I don’t expect to leave the back four.

Speaking of picking up where you left last season off, Ashley Young celebrated a new contract with a very impressive performance. The left wing tandem of Young and Luke Shaw made poor Kyle Walker look every bit as poor as he is. As the game wore on, Luke became more adventurous in his runs. If these two can stay fit for more than 2 weeks at a time, hopefully a bit more of a connection can be established, and we can see a bit more of what this pairing has to offer.

The first half performance of the much lauded Memphis Depay was encouraging and exciting. He carved a few half-chances for himself, and I’m certain he played the ball that, ultimately, led to the goal, but it was his desire to be a passing option at all times, and equally his ability to know when to move it on, that impressed me most. Going into the game, I’d heard stories of a player that demands the ball at all times, that loses the ball, and refuses to work back. On Saturday, I saw a player that, granted, did go down under the softest of contacts, but one that wanted to impress his new suitors. While it’s far too soon to judge him on where he can fit in (his second half performance paled in comparison to his first), there were early signs that Memphis has enough about him to make something of a success of this season.

Both Ander Herrera and Bastian Schweinsteiger managed to impress, despite coming off the bench. While Herrera is a known quantity in Manchester after a more than solid first season (given the amount of shirts with his name emblazoned on the back that I saw around the ground, it’s fair to say he’s a little bit popular), Bastian came into the tie with nothing but a reputation (albeit an incredibly good reputation to his name). Replacing Michael Carrick, he played the role of a director rather than that of a lead star, organizing the midfield to suit every Spurs attack. While he looked rusty, and maybe a few pounds over weight, he showed why he is so revered in world football. As for Herrera, he injected some pace and directness into a midfield that was flagging from sitting very deep for the 70 or so minutes prior. Further proof, I feel, that this side performs best in a 4-3-3.

Negatives

While Romero dealt with snapshots and collections well, his distribution left alot to be desired. Over the last two seasons, out back four have played in the knowledge that de Gea is comfortable on the ball, and is able to pick a pass to just about anyone on the pitch. Romero looked less than comfortable playing this roll, often playing out the phrase you learn at youth level: “If in doubt, kick it out”. While I’m sure this can be improved, and I sincerely it does, it wasn’t particularly encouraging to witness first hand.

Chris Balling’s partner for the afternoon was one Daley Blind. Blind, usually so composed and calm on the ball, lost both of these attributes early on, often conceding the ball, and putting his team mates under unnecessary pressure. Against more season centre forwards in this division (Aguero and Costa and the like), those mistakes will be punished. It served as a constant reminder that a commanding centre back is still a must for this squad to be a real contender.

New signing Handsome Morgan Schneiderlin was very strong in the tackle (pretty certain he won every dual he was involved in), but then proceeded to make a 180 degree turn and pass it back to Balling. While it’s nice to have a player that’ll win the ball with every tackle, he needed to be more positive once he had the ball at his feet. This is a defence that will look shaky at the best of times, the last thing they need is to have the ball near them more than they need to.

Wayne Rooney was virtually nonexistent for 90 minutes. Aside from NOT taking the chance that Kyle Walker eventually pounced upon, Rooney was a bystander in a game that needed to be have all 11 men fighting for the same cause. Given we have 3 striking options, one of which is a 13 year old with a paper round, this doesn’t bode well. There is, however, an entire season left to play, and Rooney often takes a while to get back to his best, so we ought to see improvement against Villa and Newcastle.

The midfield looked really, really disjointed. Perhaps it was the last shedding of the summer rust, perhaps it was just growing pains in what could become a blossoming partnership, but Handsome Morgan and Carrick didn’t appear to be on the same page for a lot of the game. A third man in the centre of the park (4-3-3 nonsense again) would have given each an extra passing option, as well has an extra man for John Mata to give the ball to. Just play Herrera, for fuck sake.

All in all, the performance left a lot to be desired, but we’re 3 points better off than we were last season, and that’s all the matters. We move on to Aston Villa away, which I will preview on Thursday. Until then, keep your eyes peeled as I attempt to finish the state of the squad pieces I started.

Preview: United vs Tottenham Hotspur

Despite a pre-season tailored to suit his style, and a transfer window of relative success thus far, Mr Louis van Gaal enters the first game of his second season in charge of the club under a fog of uncertainty. Mere hours before United play out 2015/16’s Premier League curtain raiser, Big Lou announced first choice goalkeeper David de Gea would not be considered for selection vs Tottenham Hotspur, questioning the Spaniard’s frame of mind as a result of a summers worth of being linked with the talent vacuum that is Real Madrid.

Last season’s hosting of Tottenham Hotspur came days after a bitterly disappointing elimination from the FA Cup, and saw United finally play with an attacking intensity sorely missing from the majority of the matches previous. In many ways, the performance came out of nowhere, and changed many peoples perceptions of what a van Gaal United might look like. Being 3-0 after 35 minutes, and never relinquishing that lead, was a pleasant change to the scrappy 1-0s and 2-1s we’d become accustomed to.

Based on word of mouth (stuff I read on twitter), it appears Sam Johnstone will be given the chance to show his worth, after an American tour that saw him play more minutes than any other goalkeeper. I assume it’s too soon for Sergio Romero to step into the hurricane, though expect him to start on the bench. A back four consisting of Darmian-Balling-Blind-Shaw will likely be tasked with protecting the young man between the sticks., with Michael Carrick and “Handsome” Morgan Schneiderlin shielding the defence. I expect new number 7 Memphis Depay, best player in the side Juan “John” Mata, and Ashley Young, celebrating a new contract, no less, to play back up to Wayne Rooney. Using an app called “Lineup11” (Not being paid to endorse these, full disclosure), I believe this is how we will line up tomorrow afternoon.

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That’s not to say I want this side to look like this. van Gaal has been a long time user of a 4-3-3, believing it to be the definite way to cover every zone on the pitch. United’s best performances of last season came when using a 4-3-3, (that run of form started against Spurs, it has to be said), so it’s only natural for me to hanker for this set up more than I would the 4-2-3-1 from pre-season. a 4-3-3 would allow for a bright light from last season (Ander Herrera) to play as well, and I think we all agree that can only be a positive thing, given the liquid football played at times down the right hand side last season. Given this information, I’ve selected a preferred XI.

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In regards to the opposition, Spurs retained their 5th place title for an incredible 15th season in a row. Gaffer Mauricio Pochettino appears to have cleared out just about all the planks brought in to replace man-machine Gareth Bale in 2013. However they haven’t made too many moves by the way of replacements, with wunderkid-turned-future greatest player of all time Harry Kane being lined up to shoulder most of the responsibility off the back of a season that saw him bag 21 league goals. despite this, Kane has only had one real season at this level, and to put too much expectation on the kid could be detrimental to his development. Then again, he might be the real deal, and get up scoring about 35 goals next year. Kane was silenced at Old Trafford last season by Chris Balling, so at least we have that.

Spurs will be without Hugo Lloris, due to a freak wrist injury over the summer, so Michel Vorm (of Swansea City fame) will likely be between the sticks. Former Southampton loanee Toby Alderweireld looks to partner actually good centre back Jan Vertonghen, with former Burnley full back Kieran Trippier and Welshy Ben Davies acting as full backs. That’s a back four made up of two new signings, so hopefully out attack can take advantage of a lack of chemistry in the defence. From that point forward, things become slightly clearer, and I imagine Nabil Bentaleb will partner Ryan Mason in the centre of the park, with Nacer Chadli, Christian Eriksen, and Erik Lamela behind the aforementioned Harry Kane. Please don’t quote me on any of this, though. I don’t have any idea who plays for Spurs these days.

Any side we put out against this Spurs squad should get a side (within reason), and, in spite of the last minute disruption to our goalkeeping plans, I expect to have 3 points on the board come 3pm tomorrow afternoon.

Score Prediction: 2-1 win