Manchester United vs. Tottenham Hotspur: Tactical Preview

It’s time. Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur will kick off the 2015/16 Premier League season at Old Trafford on Saturday, in what has been an interesting fixture in recent years. Spurs took all three points from Manchester in 2012/13 and 2013/14 before falling 3-0 this spring. Volatile results indeed. As we go into Saturday with hope of returning to the ways of two and three years past, here’s what we might expect to see.

Six by Two

Van Gaal seems to be approaching the new season with a change in tactics in mind. United will likely line up in 4-2-3-1, opting for two holding midfielders instead of a lone No. 6.

De Gea is still at United, which is good and bad. The good, of course, is that the Red Devils need not pry Hugo from us. The bad is that, well, de Gea is really good. Spurs can’t count of the Spaniard giving up anything too easily. In front of him we may see Daley Blind and Phil Jones, though Chris Smalling is also a possibility.

Former Southampton man, Luke Shaw, looks the starter at left back. At right back, Antonio Valencia is likely to start on Saturday, but may soon be replaced new singing from Torino, Matteo Darmian. With two holding midfielders this season to provide cover, the fullbacks will have more freedom to go forward. This is particularly important on the right side, as Mata tends to drift to his more natural position in the center of the pitch. Both Darmain and Valencia have significant experience playing wide in the midfield and should take well to this system.

Newcomers Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin, as well Michael Carrick, will most often occupy the two defensive midfield roles. While the Carrick-Schneiderlin-Schweinsteiger partnership will provide defensive cover, expect composure and quality in build-up play as well, as Carrick’s pass accuracy last season was 89.6% while Schneiderlin’s stood at 89.3%. This put them at 7th and 13th in the Premier League, respectively. Schweinsteiger’s 87.7% pass accuracy last season put him at 10th in the Bundesliga. Not too shabby for the core of the midfield. United as a whole led the Premier League in both possession (61.2%) and pass accuracy (85.1%) in 2014/15 and we are likely to see this possession dominance continue.

At left wing, expect the return of Ashley Young, who averaged 1.9 accurate crosses per 90 last season, the 11th most out of all Premier League players with more than 10 appearances. Juan Mata will likely occupy the right wing. The Spaniard only averaged 0.9 accurate crosses per 90 minutes in 2014/15, but will often have wide support from Valencia or Darmian when he drifts inward.

The No. 10 will be occupied by none other than former left winger at PSV, Memphis Depay. The Dutchman led the Eredivisie with 22 goals last season, and added five assists as well, but he is still somewhat of an unknown quantity in his current role.

United are reminiscent of Spurs in that options at striker are limited. With the departures of Falcao and van Persie, Rooney remains the only obvious striker. Last season, while occupying various roles up front and in the midfield, he tallied 12 goals (Nine fewer than Kane and only one more than Chadli, I might add). But Van Gaal seems to believe he is just the man to lead the attack, barring any late transfers that could push the United captain back into the midfield.

Hope for Hugo

In 2014/15, the Red Devils dominated possession, averaging 63.2% at Old Trafford. This looks unlikely to change, so Spurs should expect to defend in numbers and counter when possible. Dier seems a good choice alongside Bentaleb in this situation, a more defensive option than Mason.

It was reassuring to see Hugo come on as a substitute in the Audi Cup match against Milan on Wednesday, and while there’s still a possibility that Vorm could start come Saturday, I optimistically predict Lloris will get the nod. And the armband, of course.

Introducing SPGD

I’ll take this time to introduce what will be a regular component of my match previews. Spurs Projected Goal Difference (SPGD) is the result of a statistical model I built using Spurs’ historical results.  The model takes into account strength of opponent, home vs. away, and whether or not Spurs played a Europa League match on the Thursday before. For every match, SPGD will project the goal difference, giving us a general expectation for the result.

For this match, the SPGD value is -.82, indicating that a loss is likely for Spurs.

But in the spirit of ending on a positive note, the past two opening fixtures saw a Spurs player score a match-winning-competitive-debut goal (Dier vs. West Ham and Soldado vs. Crystal Palace). Take note, Toby…

*all data, except SPGD, from WhoScored.com.