This article originally appeared on SpursStatMan.com.
Following on from a hiding that fans will remember as a low point for years to come, Tottenham have pretty much the worst possible match in prospect. It is always a daunting task when Manchester United come to town and although the Red Devils do not have the same fear factor under David Moyes, it will be a long time before they will arrive at White Hart Lane as second favourites.
Tactically, there is not much to preview: United’s system is more or less the same as ever. They typically use a 4-4-1-1 formation and focus on using wing play to supply two high-class strikers, tailoring specific elements of that game-plan depending on their prospective opponents. At its worst, their style is essentially penalty-box football, but it can be modified to become devastating one-or-two-touch counter-attacking play, as in their 5-0 mauling of Bayer Leverkusen on Wednesday.
That is not to say the system is perfect. While it is next to impossible to argue with it, given its historic success, whether or not it can continue to be so effective in its current form is debatable, what with modern football becoming increasingly about controlling the midfield either by keeping the ball or surrendering possession and dictating in a territorial sense.
For the last few years, Manchester United fans have been complaining about being overrun in central midfield, biannually demanding a fiery, dominating replacement for Roy Keane. Of course, it is a good story – and a very easy sell for the red-tops – to blame United’s problems on a lack of investment, but those slinging mud forget that United were always vulnerable against three-man midfields even with Keane in the centre of the pitch, and particularly so in the Champions League.
Therefore, it is unsurprising that Marouane Fellaini’s arrival has not in one fell swoop turned them into an unstoppable machine à la Bayern Munich. It is impossible to fix a simple mathematical advantage – three versus two – by upgrading the parts that make up the pair.
Fellaini’s start has not really been as bad as his harshest critics have made out, but it is true that Manchester United have at times struggled to impose themselves since Moyes took over. What is a very familiar squad has at times played like strangers and injuries to star players have accentuated these problems.
Michael Carrick will be the most notable of the absentees, the former Spurs man finally having been accepted as a key part of United’s success after enduring years of harsh criticism from all quarters. Robin Van Persie could miss out, too, and André Villas-Boas will be praying that neither Rio Ferdinand or Nemanja Vidić are match fit on Sunday.
The fact that both centre-backs are creaking due to old age and wear and tear is perhaps the biggest problem in the squad right now. Although there is potential for them to be replaced by current squad members, United still benefit from having one of them alongside Jonny Evans.
As for the starting eleven, David De Gea will continue in goal. The Spaniard is another who has shaken off the nonsensically severe criticism of years gone by and is now one of the best goalkeepers in the division.
Chris Smalling will continue at right-back in place of Rafael, unless David Moyes decides to select Phil Jones here as a more attacking option, which is a possibility. Moyes will be keenly aware of Villas-Boas’ preference for inside-forwards and a physical, vertical player like Jones could be key to containing and then picking off Spurs on that flank.
Ferdinand and Evans seem set to continue in the middle, while Patrice Evra, suddenly the world’s most dangerous attacker of set-pieces, will play at left-back yet again. In addition to his threat from corners and free-kicks, Evra has rediscovered his mojo defensively, and will prove a tough nut to crack for Andros Townsend or Erik Lamela.
Central midfield is where Moyes will have to earn his paycheque. With Carrick out, there are an enviable number of possibilities that the Scot can choose from. My sneaking suspicion is that he will pick his most physically dominating and counter-attacking options in Phil Jones and Marouane Fellaini and tell them to re-enact the demolition job that Yaya Touré and Fernandinho did on Spurs last weekend.
Antonio Valencia will presumably start on the right, having come into some form of late. Famously one-dimensional, the Ecuadorian is no less effective for his lack of subtlety and Jan Vertonghen will have to be at his best to prevent him from supplying United’s forwards with excellent deliveries.
Moyes’ options on the left are numerous, but it seems likely that Danny Welbeck will start, much to Twitter’s delight (#FreeShinji). He would be a useful defensive option against Kyle Walker, while also being capable of coming into the centre in much the same way as Samir Nasri did last weekend to great effect.
The front two, of course, will be Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie, unless the Dutchman fails to shake off a knock, in which case this whole preview will go to pot. If that eventuality does come to pass, the sensible thing to do would be to keep the Kagawa and Rooney partnership going after huge success in the Leverkusen game.
As for Tottenham, it is hard to know what they can do at the moment. As Michael Cox wrote for ESPN this week, Spurs’ is a squad that is exceptionally talented but missing out on two key ingredients: creativity in the middle and familiarity with each other. Without Christian Eriksen and with Erik Lamela still adapting and clearly low on confidence, it is hard to fathom from where genuine guile can be supplied, while the latter can only come in time.
Judging from the Europa League line-up, it seems that Jermain Defoe will finally put the struggling Roberto Soldado out of his misery and start a Premier League match for the first time since the West Ham debacle at the start of October. While Defoe is not to everyone’s liking, he should at least come into the game with a decent understanding of his teammates. It could take something as simple as that to turn Spurs’ season around – but you would have to be a brave man to bet on it.