Tottenham and Manchester United's stingy defences a stark contrast
It was a very Louis van Gaal kind of occasion. "We had our best performance this season in the first half," the Manchester United manager said. His side still drew 0-0, a scoreline with which they would acquire a closer relationship. That was December 2014. It was United's last trip to White Hart Lane.
Fast forward to the present day and it may be no surprise if a rematch produces the same result. Leicester have had a rock-solid rearguard in recent weeks but, over the course of a campaign, Tottenham and United have possessed the Premier League's best defences. United have kept the most clean sheets: 15. Tottenham have conceded the fewest goals: 25.
Mauricio Pochettino can seem a more progressive manager than Van Gaal, his Spurs side more proactive than an often passive United, but they have both implemented solid foundations. It amounts to a transformation for Tottenham, who conceded more goals than relegated Hull and as many as demoted Burnley last season. Improvement has been less dramatic at United, who have only conceded more than 37 league goals in two of the last 13 campaigns. Yet greater stinginess at both clubs came after summers that were defined by attempts to sign centre-backs from a Madrid club. Tottenham signed Atletico's Toby Alderweireld while United's bid for Real's Sergio Ramos was rejected.
Alderweireld has completed a core four for Tottenham. It says much about the modern game, and about Pochettino's style of football, that rather than consisting of a back four, in the manner of George Graham's Arsenal, they comprise of a goalkeeper, two centre-backs and a holding midfielder. The quartet of Hugo Lloris, Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen and Eric Dier have lent solidity and structure. Dier's conversion from defender to midfielder has been a masterstroke; his ability to drop deeper when the full-backs advance means Spurs' shape can go from 4-2-3-1 to 3-3-3-1 fluently. Like Lloris, he has only sat out one league game. Alderweireld has not even missed a minute. Vertonghen was an ever-present until being injured in January. His belated return could come against United on Sunday.
If Spurs have had a core four, United have possessed three regulars, supported by a larger rotating cast. David De Gea shades Lloris for the unofficial title of the league's best goalkeeper. If Alderweireld and Vertonghen reflect each other, Belgians with similar attributes, United's centre-back partnership consists of opposites. The common denominator is balance. In Vertonghen and Daley Blind, each manager has favoured a left-footed centre-back. In United's case, it is both an illustration of Van Gaal's quixotic nature and that, minus Ramos and with Phil Jones injured for much of the time, there have been fewer alternatives.
Instead, Van Gaal has presided over a division of responsibilities at the back. Chris Smalling is the physical footballer, Blind the technical player. They are stopper and playmaker, destructive and constructive. Blind averages 56 passes a game, Smalling 43. The Dutchman, with his greater range, plays 4.7 long balls per match, the Englishman just 2.9. Change the criteria and Smalling' numbers are higher. He has made more clearances per match: 5.5 to 3.5, and committed more fouls committed: 1.5 to 0.8. In a league where most teams field a solitary striker, Smalling is charged with halting the opposing lone forward to leave Blind as the spare man, even as opponents, with diminishing degrees of success, have tried to isolate bigger, faster forwards against the Dutchman.
Combine the attributes of Smalling and Blind and the hybrid may be a fantastic footballer: Alderweireld, say. The Belgian's statistics show his solidity. He beats both of his United counterparts for clearances and blocks, with 7.6 and 0.8, respectively. His tackling is cleaner, with only 0.3 fouls committed per game. But Alderweireld is an all-round package who can nullify and create. Tottenham's equaliser at Anfield last week stemmed from Alderweireld's diagonal pass to Christian Eriksen. Dele Alli's goal at Everton came from his defence-splitting pass. Vertonghen has a similar capacity to spread play; what he lacked, at times in previous years, has been reliability which Spurs have exuded this season after the Belgians were united.
The oddity is that while they are international teammates, the Spurs centre-backs tend to be the full-backs in Marc Wilmots' team. Full-backs represent a fundamental, perhaps paradoxical, difference between Tottenham and United. Pochettino's quartet are all specialist, attack-minded full-backs; the understudies Kieran Trippier and Ben Davies are charged with replicating the impact of the first choices Kyle Walker and Danny Rose. Van Gaal has used 13, many of them youngsters whose presence was the product of injuries.
Yet while two of the senior figures, Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia, are converted wingers, the United full-backs have tended to be less adventurous than their Tottenham equivalents. It scarcely looked that way when the season started with Luke Shaw in superlative form; the Englishman's September leg break seemed to have an impact on Matteo Darmian, too, who has rarely shown such dynamism driving forward since his sidekick was sidelined. The buccaneering Tim Fosu-Mensah fashioned Anthony Martial's winner against Everton last week, but over the season the difference in approach is showed by the statistics: the Spurs full-backs have three league goals and eight assists, their United counterparts no goals and six assists.
It is a sign that Tottenham have married defence and attack rather better. The other indication is in midfield. Dier has been a lone defensive midfielder, usually doing the dirty work so Mousa Dembele and Alli can advance. Van Gaal invariably fields two. Coupled with the caution many of his full-backs have exhibited, it means the attacking duties are in effect left to four players for much of the time. The same cannot be said of Spurs.
It is why, while the intelligent, resourceful Blind and the improving Smalling are having fine seasons, they merit less credit for United's defensive record. They are shielded by more men. Unlike Tottenham, whose pressing game means they push up and leave space behind the back four, they tend to defend deeper.
And the biggest difference in the figures is not reflected in the goals against column, showing United have been breached twice more than Tottenham. It is highlighted in the scoring standings. Tottenham have compiled the best defensive record while being the division's most prolific side. United are on course for their lowest tally in the Premier League era. It may be a simplistic conclusion, but it lends itself to the suggestion that Spurs are an attacking side and United a defensive one. All of which enhances Pochettino's achievement in building such a forward-thinking but frugal unit.
Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.