A superb start to the season has seen the European Champions sitting four points clear of their Manchester title rivals, as well as topping group E in the Champions League, as we head into the autumn International break. Few of us would have predicted such a strong start given the summer sporting events that limited our preseason preparations and, even more so, given the turnover of playing staff. It’s a credit to the manager and also the adaptability of the players, newcomers and stalwarts alike, that have adapted so quickly to a demanding start to the season. It has been demanding, in terms of the fixtures and number of games, but also to the new tactical ideas and philosophy that is still very much a work in progress. So far so good then but an especially demanding week awaits once the full contingent return to Cobham next week.

After the resounding home win against the Canaries I was pleased to hear Roberto mention how we could expect to see much more from the likes of Oriol Romeu, Azpilicueta, Marko Marin and Sturridge over the coming weeks. In these comments the manager astutely recognises that the next few months ahead will be the most demanding, physically and mentally, of the whole season as we try and fight for wins across multiple competitions. As such the whole squad will need to be utilised. Clever man management and rotation may well be as useful a tool for the coaches as opposition scouting and tactical briefs.

I was particularly impressed with the performances from the Spanish boys, Romeu and Azpilicueta, against Wolves the other week. They naturally linked up well, Romeu understanding that his teammate (‘Dave’) would be motoring up the right flank, Azpilicueta often the first pass he would look out for. Romeu’s range and variety of passing, his vision and awareness, were pretty exemplarily against the Championship outfit. Meanwhile Azpilicueta showcased an abundance of pace, quick feet and a crossing ability that will be a real asset for us. It has only been the fine form of Obi Mikel and Ivanovic that have restricted their appearances thus far – that may be about to change though.

Straight after the internationals we have a tricky set of fixtures to navigate over a short, eleven day spell. First up Spurs away will be undoubtedly a usual lively derby, a long trip to Donetsk lies in wait before back-to-back home ties against our long-standing title rivals. Canny use of personnel here could make as much as a difference as tactical nous so it’ll be interesting to see how Robbie plays it. Here are my thoughts (for what they’re worth) on what Di Matteo might be considering…

Spurs
There are no great insights needed to work out that Tottenham’s main threat lies in the pace of their established front three this season – Defoe, Lennon and Bale. For me it is important we recognise this and try and mitigate against their pace by factoring in some of our own into the starting eleven. As I’ve alluded to, in order to combat Bale on the left, it would be great to see a first league start for Azpilicueta. Not only is the Spaniard quick on his feet but his attacking instincts can get Bale working back the other way and help nullify the threat on this flank. Rio Ferdinand was badly exposed and embarrassed by Lennon’s pace at Old Trafford and it will be important that a midfield shield of Ramires and Mikel remain disciplined in the centre. The more mobile pairing of Cahill and Luiz at centre back should also be a strong consideration for similar reasons. An unsung hero for Spurs this season has been Sandro, much of their good possession play and midfield battling stems from his work at the base of midfield. We have seen what a fantastic tactical job Oscar can do in this area of the pitch and it would a sensible move to pit the young Brazilian against his fellow countryman.

Shakhtar Donetsk
Let’s make no mistake, a long old journey to Ukraine, against a tricky and skilful side, will be as tough an encounter we will likely face in the group. Even so it might be a good opportunity to rest some of the attacking players from the starting line up and rotate. If we’re going to get a result discipline and work rate are the crucial foundations, quality pressing will no doubt need some fresh legs. I think we’ll look to keep tight in this one and utilise quick breakaways. To make the most of this I would like to see a pacey front three of Hazard, Moses and Sturridge – in a more traditional 4-3-3. That would be a more robust formation for an important Champions League away tie and would allow the midfield to hold it’s shape in the centre, offer width to stretch play, numbers in midfield to keep the ball, guard against overlaps, and finally pose a genuine threat on the counter.

Manchester United
The familiar stuttering start to their league campaign may look to be in the past, United certainly appeared to movee up the gears against Newcastle, but even so this a side who can be got at. United have yet to resolve a genuine problem area in the centre of the pitch, particularly at the base. Quite a few times already this season we’ve seen the likes of Fellaini, Lambert and Lennon cause havoc in this area of the pitch. Our attacking four should be looking to exploit this weakness and cause United’s defence big problems. United will try and keep narrow and we should also be mindful to get width into our play. The recently adapted diamond midfield of Man Utd is even more obviously narrow, as Evra and Rafael push on to compensate they often leave big gaps in behind. In recent fixtures between us Ferguson has looked to crowd midfield and asked Park and Valencia to do a job on our full backs – although he might not have the personnel to do this to similar effect this time, it remains an option. A high intensity passing game, the quick feet and exchanges we’ve enjoyed so much so far this season, could be the key to unlocking Man Utd’s rearguard.