Phil Jones was selected to help contain the Welshman but space opened up on the other flank
To understand Manchester United's cautious strategy at White Hart Lane, think back to their 3-2 defeat by Tottenham at Old Trafford in September. Then Spurs had terrorised the United back four with powerful dribbles from deep positions – Mousa Dembélé provided bursts from central midfield, Jan Vertonghen motored forward to open the scoring but Gareth Bale was inevitably the principal threat with surging runs on the ball. Therefore United's entire approach was intended to prevent André Villas-Boas's side attacking quickly into space.
Whereas Sir Alex Ferguson ordered high pressing against Liverpool last weekend, here they stood off, defending deep and ensuring there was little space in behind their back four. There was little space in front of it either, at least towards Bale's flank. His dribbling ability was the reason for Phil Jones's surprise involvementJones sat patiently in front of the defence, right-of-centre, always in a position to help Rafael da Silva deal with Bale. The Brazilian has fared well in one-against-one situations against the Tottenham winger over the past couple of seasons – Bale's goal at Old Trafford earlier in the season coming when the Welshman charged directly at the centre of United's defence.
Jones's positioning here prevented that possibility, as he subtly ushered Bale down the flank, where Da Silva's good defending meant it took Bale an hour to deliver a decent cross. As Bale became frustrated at his lack of space, he wandered into the centre of the pitch, away from both Jones and Da Silva.
That, in itself, was evidence that United's approach had been successful: Bale's experiments with a central role last season came after he complained about being double-marked, especially in home games, but he does not possess the all-round ability to thrive from a starting position in the centre, particularly as United remained so deep and compact.
United, however, by focusing on Bale, left gaps for others to exploit – Clint Dempsey, for example, was afforded too much space. There was one glaring example in the second half, when he wandered through the centre of the defence before being denied by David de Gea – Nemanja Vidic had moved across the pitch to track Bale's run, leaving a hole in the visitors' defence.
But the major beneficiary was Aaron Lennon, located on the opposite side to Bale. He dribbled at Patrice Evra, forcing the Frenchman into a couple of fouls that saw him booked before half-time, making him reluctant to challenge the Spurs winger after the break. Lennon could duck inside under no pressure and became increasingly threatening with his final ball – he set up a fine chance for Jermain Defoe who was thwarted only by Rio Ferdinand's last-ditch block, and was fittingly the man to tee up Dempsey's equaliser.
United were seconds from victory but had invited continual pressure without offering the counter-attacking threat that vindicated previous defensive-minded performances this season. With their focus on Bale, combined with Lennon's crucial contributions, United's lack of flying wingers was conspicuous: Ashley Young is injured, Nani is out of favour and the substitute Antonio Valencia has been poor in recent months. United only managed two attempts on target, their lowest figure of the season, primarily because they did not have men to carry the ball forward on the break to create chances – Ferguson needed the type of threat he had been so determined to prevent Tottenham showcasing.
A notable feature of Chelsea's first-half strategy in the 2-1 victory over Arsenal was how one attacking midfielder – usually Oscar, but sometimes Juan Mata – would stay very wide on the left, stretching the play and causing Bacary Sagna positional problems. The French right-back seemed unsure of whether to stay tight to Per Mertesacker, or move across towards the touchline, and was also frequently caught too high up the pitch.
Before his injury problems, Sagna was arguably the Premier League's best right-back – albeit amongst little competition – but his recent form has been so disappointing that opponents seem to regard him as a weak link. Considering his crossing at Stamford Bridge was again underwhelming, it is difficult to argue that his defensive problems are compensated for by his
attacking threat, and his understudy Carl Jenkinson deserves a run in the side.
Aston Villa's 2-2 draw against West Bromwich Albion was similar to their 1-1 draw against QPR in December. Paul Lambert again played a 3-5-2 system, which meant both Christian Benteke and Gabriel Agbonlahor could stay high up the pitch and offer a threat on the break, but the opposition full-backs were given a huge amount of time on the ball.
Perhaps Lambert was confident Billy Jones and Liam Ridgewell would not provide a sufficient threat for this to be a problem, but it is rare to see Premier League footballers with so much time on the ball, and so little defensive responsibility. The Villa wing-backs are often too negative, becoming full-backs and tracking the opposition wide midfielders, leaving the opposition full-backs free – a side with good technical players in those positions, like Chelsea just before Christmas – are simply allowed to run riot.