Title contenders may have blips, also-rans suffer bad form… If Tottenham are to seriously consider themselves as title contenders they need to consign the 5-2 defeat at Arsenal to history and get something out of the match against Manchester United – turn that result into a blip and not part of a run of bad form.
Last season Spurs held the Champions to a 0-0 draw at home, and were defeated 2-0 at Old Trafford. This season, Spurs suffered a 3-0 defeat in their first league game of the season away to Manchester United. Can Spurs hold on for a point, and will that be enough to fulfil their ambitions? It’s generally thought that most talk of a title challenge for Spurs should be shoved firmly in the out-tray labelled “Mind-games/Banter/Braggadocio/Misc” but Spurs will be very disappointed if Champions League qualification isn’t secured for next season, especially in the light of the expected departure of boss Harry Redknapp for the England job.
In the 3-0 win at the start of Spurs’ season, the goals were scored by Welbeck, Anderson and Rooney. Worryingly for Spurs, Anderson is expected to be fit for 4th March, and United are also waiting on fitness tests for Antonio Valencia, Wayne Rooney and Tom Cleverley. (Latest indications are that Rooney and Anderson will be fit, Cleverley and Valencia will not) Welbeck scored and assisted another in the 3-0 win, but he’s not been in the best of touch recently, and certainly struggled in the England international up front on his own. Write Welbeck off at your peril however, he was man of the match back in August and his unconventional style is difficult to play against. Rooney is expected to play after a throat infection-enforced absence, and will be champing at the bit for this game.
Rooney plays like a frustrated 5-a-side player. Whilst ostensibly playing up front, he often finds himself more involved in the game than several of the midfielders, let alone other attackers. Dropping deep to pick the ball up and spreading it to create attacks that he would hope to get on the end of, Spurs currently lack this type of player. Van der Vaart occupies a similar area of the pitch to Rooney, but is not the same type of player.
By comparing the two players statistics for passing in the opposition half, and the final third of the pitch, it is clear to see that Rooney gets a lot more of the ball than his counterpart, and was able to have more of an influence on the game. Home advantage will be with spurs this time around though, and the onus will be on them to control possession. If you think the comparison is unfair – for putting a striker up against a midfielder, remember that a midfielder should be hitting more passes than an attacker, and consider that Van der Vaart had 9 shots that game compared to Rooney’s 6, and one more on target – although crucially, no goals compared to Rooney’s single.
So, as shown in the table, Wayne Rooney get on the ball far more than Van der Vaart, makes more probing passes at the business endo f the pitch, and created twice as many chances in the last league fixture between the two teams. It may not be the most insightful of claims, nor the best kept secret in football, but Rooney runs the show and Redknapp will have to find a way of limiting Rooney’s influence.
Sir Alex, like Harry Redknapp, is a staunch supporter of the classic British 4-4-2 formation. In an age of inverted wingers, false nines and deep-lying play-makers, the two old generals often stick two fingers up at the current fashion for 4-2-3-1 or 4-1-2-2-1. But that’s not to suggest that they both reject everything modern. Conventional chalk-on-the-boots wingers such as Aaron Lennon and Antonio Valencia are complemented on the other flanks by Gareth Bale and Ashley Young, who are often given a more roaming brief, cutting infield to let Assou-Ekotto and Evra hit the bylines. Redknapp more often than not, when playing teams up and around their own league position, will favour a 4-4-1-1; with Rafael Van der Vaart playing behind the lone striker.
Kranjcar was Spurs’ standout player in the defeat against Manchester United, but is unlikely to start this time, which is a shame for him. He will make way for his Croatia teammate Luka Modric, who is a very similar type of player, very proficient technically and a creative passer. Scott Parker wasn’t at the club on 22ndAugust, but won’t play in this fixture due to a suspension. Dressing-room karate nutcase Sandro will probably deputize. Harry Redknapp will hope that these two changes in the heart of the team will make a difference to the result, especially as two of Manchester United’s standout players from August, Tom Cleverley and Anderson aren’t both likely to feature.
So, Redknapp and Ferguson are both forced into changes in midfield. The statistics (taken for the season and only percentages used, for fairness to Krancjar and Sandro, who have played fewer games) show that Modric and Sandro are indeed very similar players to Kranjcar and Parker. Sandro’s tackling success rate would arguably put him above Parker in some areas of competency. Kranjcar has got a few games recently on the right of midfield, posing another selection dilemma for Redknapp.
The choices for Redknapp boil down to a few key decisions:
- Start Van der Vaart (if fit) and play a 4-4-1-1, or play Saha and adebayor up top in a 4-4-2?
- Who to partner Kaboul in defence? Kaboul has proved a rock this season, King has played 2 games recently so it could be Dawson.
- Kranjcar or Lennon on the right of midfield?
If both managers decide on a 4-4-2, it could be a classic slug-fest. Games between the top 5 teams in the league have produced an amazing amount of goals this season, and some incredible results – the 5-2 victory for Arsenal from 0-2 down against Spurs being just the latest in a long list of schoolyard scores. Manchester United’s lack of a specialist defensive midfielder and the potential absence of Chris Smalling will be a worry to the Reds, in addition to the continued absence of Vidic, and the gradual decline of Rio Ferdinand.
Spurs haven’t won against Manchester United since May 2001, a run of 25 games, and are now in a patch of dodgy form (W2, D2, L2 of their last 6 games), but this is football. There are so many factors outside of the pitch that may come into play today. Will Spurs be dejected following their humbling against North London foes Arsenal, or will they come out bristling with energy, keen to put things right? Will the uncertainty over Redknapp’s future affect Spurs’ mentality? Will Luka Modric, who was dropped for the away game in August because of transfer speculation, step up to the plate? Will he consider this game a shop window?