Having secured a place in the Europa League for the New Year United returned to domestic affairs with a tough home game against Spurs. Having drawn their previous four home league games and drawn at Everton the previous week United really needed to win this game to make up ground upon those above them; Tottenham included.


In: De Gea, Valencia, Jones, Darmian, Martial and Carrick.
Out: Romero, Young, Bailly, Blind, Rooney and Mata.


  • This was a fascinating tactical battle. United changed their shape to something closer to a 4-3-3; Tottenham started with three at the back but within minutes had switched to a lopsided four at the back. As a consequence United’s shape was also lopsided.
  • Both sides pressed high but then dropped to a low block when the opposition had any sustained periods of possession. Fortunately it was United who beat the press more often and broke quickly resulting in a first half goal through the excellent Mkhitarayan.
  • United created more chances and perhaps should have scored more, but it was a tight game. Tottenham played well, especially in the last quarter of the game. They moved the ball quickly but didn’t create that many clear cut chances.
  • Herrera was metronomic here, encouraging other and leading the press. Ibrahimovic worked incredibly hard when Spurs had the ball and Mkhitaryan was neat, quick and inventive, but the star of the show was Jones who completely subdued the excellent Harry Kane.
  • United dropped far too deep in the final quarter and it looked as if a single goal was unlikely to be enough to win the game. The foul on Mkhitaryan and subsequent injury which stopped the game for about three minutes whilst he was stretchered off seemed to disturb Tottenham’s rhythm and they were never as sharp again.


After the win in Ukraine Jose Mourinho returned to the starting eleven which had started the last league game at Everton on the previous weekend. The shape at Everton was a 4-2-3-1, but here it alternated constantly between that shape and an orthodox 4-3-3. You can focus too heavily on formations when reviewing tactical approaches but in this game they are an interesting talking point.

1st-half-early  car

United’s early shape in defensive shape and the excellent Michael Carrick

Tottenham seemed to start in a 3-4-3; at the kick-off they lined up with a three man defence with Vertonghen in the middle, Alderweireld to the left and Danny Rose to the right. Kyle Walker was far higher on the right with Son deeper on the left. This shape didn’t last long so maybe it was a deliberate starting ploy but equally it could have been that United’s first chance after only a couple of minutes, which came through the inside right half space between Rose and Vertonghen may have forced an adjustment. Thereafter they reverted to their more usual 4-2-3-1 with the three occupying fairly narrow positions. In this shape they often rely on their full backs to push forward providing attacking width.

The Tottenham starting shape did have an effect on United. Walker’s high position on the Tottenham right seemed to intimidate Martial on the United left. He dropped back and was effective in restricting Walker’s attacking contribution. Martial however did not contribute that much in an attacking sense, this being the case even after Tottenham’s readjustment when Walker dropped deeper. This meant that United’s attacking play was fairly lopsided in the first half.

first-half-adjustments  herrera

United’s first half adjustments between defence and attack with general movements indicated in yellow and Herrera whose movement was key

United were notionally a 4-2-3-1, but the positioning of Herrera was the key. United alternated between an aggressive pressing game when Spurs had the ball in deep areas. When Spurs held the ball or moved it into the United half they would then drop back into a low block looking to control space. In the low block Herrera sat in front of the defence alongside Carrick, when United pressed he raced forward encouraging others to help him pen Spurs in on the left. At those moments Carrick adjusted to a more central position but he tended to stay deep. Pogba on the right also pressed but he tended to stay higher throughout. So when United pressed it was 4-3-3, when they dropped into a low block it was closer to a 4-2-3-1.

United did this extremely well, perhaps as well as we have seen from United in recent years and certainly this season. As United pressed often the 4-3-3 shape tended to predominate. It was however still fairly lopsided with Herrera combining well with Ibrahimovic and Mkhitaryan on the right. Ibrahimovic tended to stay on the right hand side of Alderweireld preventing him from switching the ball diagonally from the back as he likes to do.

This set up the pattern of the game with United pressing Spurs, particularly on United’s right hand side and often winning the ball in high positions. That first chance we mentioned earlier came in this way when Mkhitaryan took the ball down and threaded the ball inside Rose for Ibrahimovic. He was able to pull the ball back to Pogba who shot low drawing an excellent early save from Lloris. United created a number of other good chances from this area before eventually scoring from a similar scenario.

Before this though Tottenham had their moments when they did move the ball forward successfully beating the press. They didn’t create many clear cut opening however even though they did move the ball quickly to feet; most of their play was in front of United and with Rose and Walker failing to provide attacking width United were more than able to cope. It was noticeable that Kane was having a difficult time, marshaled effectively by Jones and Rojo. His problem again was that with the full backs deep he had no one to spread the ball wide too. When he tried to do this after 30 minutes he found nobody their and turned back into Herrera who took the ball off him in the centre circle. Herrera instantly threaded a beautiful weighted pass through the inside right channel between Rose and Vertonghen for Mkhitaryan to run onto. He ran clear and struck a rising shot past Loris. Boom! 1-0 after half an hour.

Mkhitaryan - Boom!

Mkhitaryan – Boom!

The point about the goal is that despite United’s aggressive press Tottenham had continued to play a high line which left them vulnerable when possession was turned over. United had enjoyed several chances as a consequence of this, at last they had capitalized.

Shortly after the goal Ibrahimovic had another chance as a consequence of another turnover of possession in a high position but unfortunately United were unable to capitalize further before the break. The pattern of play remained the same however for the rest of the half.


There were no half time substitutions for either team but United’s play took a turn for the worst. United were sloppy at the start of the second half and kept giving the ball away. Pogba was especially guilty. This encouraged Spurs to press United. Tottenham of course now had to get back into the game so had to assert themselves. They pushed United back and generally played higher up the pitch. Sloppy defending saw United concede one free kick from which Wanyama should have scored.

Having got on top it was Spurs who chose to make the first change. This came in the 57th minute with Sissoko replacing Son and then ten minutes later Winks replaced Dembele. Spurs were now pressing United and United were limiting themselves to looking to hit Spurs on the break. Spurs attacked United without any great width throughout the first 70 minutes of this game and it was only after this time that Walker and Rose managed to get forward and provide width. Rose particularly had some success against Valencia and Mkhitaryan. In the centre of the pitch Herrera dropped back and United’s shape became closer to a 4-2-3-1. What was noticeable though was how little success Kane had in the middle. This was generally because United’s spine stayed strong throughout and both Rojo and Jones had excellent games.

jones                 rojo

Jones and Rojo, both had superb games. Jones made 6 clearances, 5 interceptions and 4 blocks. He won 100% of his aerial duels. Rojo made 16 clearances, 4 interceptions and 4 blocks.

On 72 minutes Mourinho made his first change replacing the disappointing Martial with Rashford, presumably with the threat of his pace on the break in mind. The key point about the second half was that whilst Spurs seemed to be controlling possession and dictating the game United controlled space. Despite this it seemed that United would need to score again to win the game. Spurs seemed to be gradually cranking up the pressure and given United recent history it seemed unlikely that they would hold out. On 83 minutes Nkoudou replaced Eriksen. Spurs removing both Ericksen and Son demonstrated that the Spurs three behind Kane had not really functioned effectively. They had provided neat football but had rarely hurt United and with Spurs full backs failing to get forward for most of the game Spurs had not really hurt United.


Carrick action areas, he helped to control team shape and space throughout the game

United did have a number of good chances to break and on one such occasion Rose foul on Mkhitaryan meant that United were forced into a second substitution. He was replaced by Bailly on 85 minutes; Bailly positioned himself in front of the defence with Herrera moving further forward. There was a prolonged break in play due to Mkhitaryan’s injury and this seemed to disrupt Tottenham’s attacking rhythm just their pressure on United was mounting. This probably helped United.

On 90 minutes Fellaini replaced Herrera. The referee allowed six minutes of injury time but United were able to see out the game.


A home win in the league at last; the first since the win over Leicester City on the 24th September. The win sees United go with three points of their opponents here. United need to start winning consecutive league games however if they are going to make an impression on those above them.

Match statistics

Match statistics

This was a very enjoyable game, not just because United won but because Tottenham are a good side who are tactically astute. A game of cat and mouse at times, both sides had periods in the ascendency and both sides should probably have scored more. Mourinho adopted a 4-3-3 which allowed United to press Spurs and they were often successful in winning the ball in high areas. United then played very well in transition creating good chances. If Spurs held the ball and beat the press United would then drop back into a low block. This worked really well and Tottenham as a consequence had few chances until later in the match when United perhaps dropped a little too deep. On this occasion, unlike in other recent games they got away with it.

In this game one felt that the balance of the team was right. Jones and Rojo played well, Herrera lead the press and Mkhitaryan provided pace and vision, especially in transition phases. Ibrahimovic lead the line and did not drop as deep as he has on other occasions. The use of the 4-3-3 worked for United with a midfield three ensuring United were never outnumbered in the middle of the pitch. As ever Carrick controlled the team shape. A tight game but a good win.