Manchester United and Tottenham are two sides that enjoyed a slight upturn in fortune towards the end of 2013. United have won four on the spin and are threatening to get back into the title race whilst Spurs are unbeaten in three under new boss Tim Sherwood, having also found their scoring boots from open play. New Year’s Day's late kick-off between these two sides should tell us a lot about both sides trajectory for 2014. Manchester United are favourites at 1.68 for the win, with Spurs the outsiders at 5.00 to cause an upset and the draw at 3.80.
Crucially for Manchester United, Wayne Rooney is expected to return to the starting line-up. Phil Jones is injured, while Robin van Persie is also unlikely to make a return. With Marouane Fellaini out until February, the side are looking short in centre-midfield.
Paulinho is a doubt for Spurs following an injury he picked up in the victory over Stoke. The side still have shortages at the back with Jan Vertonghen and Younes Kaboul out through injury, but they will welcome back Kyle Walker from suspension.
A more attacking Spurs line-up
Tim Sherwood appears to have ditched the more cautious style of play of Andre Villas-Boas and got his side firing in a 4-4-2 against Stoke. While on the face of things this might be a dangerous way to go at Old Trafford, we have seen already this season - such as in the 2-1 defeat by West Brom - that teams can get at United at Old Trafford and cause them problems if they are progressive.
The strike partnership of Roberto Soldado and Emmanuel Adebayor worked relatively well in this tie, with the former scoring and getting an assist and the latter also recording an assist. It was quite an interesting 4-4-2, as although Christian Eriksen played from the left, he spent large chunks of the game in central positions behind the front two, as we can see below:
Eriksen was peeling off the flank and getting on the ball centrally with no other player on the pitch having more touches than the Dane, who saw the ball 101 times.
This is a key area where Spurs can get at United. If they overload these areas, between United's midfield and defence, then they can cause the side problems, given that United lack a top class defensive midfielder. Spurs' best approach will be to show no fear and charge at United's back four, so playing a 4-4-2 could well help them towards achieving a consecutive league win at Old Trafford.
The midfield battle
United, as stated, lack a natural defensive midfielder, but Spurs too do not play with a holding player. They instead employ two box-to-box players, which could create an interesting dynamic. This may be even more interesting if Wayne Rooney drops into deeper role, as he has done in recent weeks.
As we can see from the above action-areas graphic, Rooney spent 18.10% of the game in the central midfield area, as well as dropping off behind the forward to take up deeper roles. As a result he saw a lot of the ball, completing 47 passes and generally being a central presence for United, scoring a great goal in the process.
Rooney's ability to drop back will potentially create a three versus two in the midfield, if Spurs opt for a 4-4-2 formation. This could potentially leave Spurs outnumbered, even if Moussa Dembele does have the power to drive up and down the pitch. Playing Etienne Capoue - who replaced Paulinho against Stoke - may provide a bit more natural discipline to compliment the forward forays of Dembele.
The same could be true for United, as Eriksen might be drifting in off the left flank to give United's central pairing of Tom Cleverley and Michael Carrick problems. Carrick is a good reader of the game but might struggle with the mobility of Eriksen and potentially also Dembele, when the Belgian raids out of midfield. This battle could be one that decides the game, as both sides have a unique approach to their midfield style of play.
United have won four on the spin and will want to consolidate that with a strong showing against Tottenham to get back in contention for a late title bid.
Spurs are level on points with United and a win would take them above the champions, as well as help them push for a top four berth, which a few games ago looked out of their reach. In truth a point won't be great for either side, with both sides desperate to continue their momentum.
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