MANCHESTER UNITED vs TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR
After taking 1 point from 6 in their previous two league games United would be looking to get back to winning ways with this first home game in a month. Conventional wisdom in the press however was that United would lose this game against the excellent confident Spurs side who had drawn level on points with them in the last few weeks with Mourinho’s over-caution being trumped by Pochettino’s tactical flexibility. Both sides went into this game on 20 points.
In: De Gea, Bailly, Jones, Young, Matic, Mkhitaryan and Lukaku.
Out: Romero, Darmian, Lindelof, Blind, Tuanzebe, Mactominey and Martial.
- With seven changes from the mid-week League Cup game Jose Mourinho set United up with a three at the back. Tottenham adopted a similar approach and the teams matched upman for man in midfield. Space was at a premium.
- Tottenham tried to change things in the middle of the second half, changing personnel in an attempt to pull United around and create gaps. To an extent this worked but left them vulnerable in deeper areas. United pounced on this after Mourinho’s own changes of personnel.
- Up until the changes United’s attacking play was uncoordinated. There are a number of issues here. Mkhitaryan poor form, the inaccuracy of United’s early forward balls, Lukaku difficulties receiving the ball with his back to goal and Rashford and Lukaku’s inability to combine well with each other.
- Regarding the previous point United missed Pogba here. He would have made a significant difference in a game like this.
- That old Rashford/Martial or sometimes Martial/Rashford switch worked again here. One of them will run the legs of the opposition only for the other to come on and be the killer in the last twenty minutes.
Jose made seven changes from the side he selected for the midweek League Cup game but retained the three at the back strategy. The three here were Bailly to the right, Smalling in the middle and Jones to the right. The wingbacks were Valencia and Young; Young featuring on the left. The basic shape was a 3-4-1-2 with Mkhitaryan behind Rashford and Lukaku. Tottenham employed a similar shape with Son and Delle Alli up front and a back three featuring Dier in the centre with Alderweireld and Vertonghen alongside him.
United and Spurs first half shapes
At the start of the game the ball was a bit of a hot potato with both sides seemingly content to rush it away from their own half but as a consequence exerting little control of the ball or the game. This was largely the situation throughout the half although the balance of play did swing from one side to the other. United started the game on top seemingly with more energy whilst Tottenham had the better of the middle of the half and United asserted themselves again late in the half. The seem that was on top at any point seemed to largely depend on whose attempts to press the ball and win it in high areas having just lost it was the most successful.
The main pattern of United’s play was an early pass forward from the back towards the front pair. Of this pair Lukaku tended to come towards the ball whilst Rashford tended to try to run the channels. This meant that Lukaku often received the ball with his back to goal. Holding the play up as a target-man is not his strength and he was often rushed out of possession. He wasn’t helped in this by the fact that the rushed ball forward wasn’t of the highest quality and whilst this also affected Rashford’s ability to have an impact the fact he was running towards the Spurs back line made his play more impactful drawing a number of fouls.
Two other key issues stood out. Firstly Rashford and Lukaku seemed more able to combine with the players behind them than with each other. They weren’t helped in this by Mkhitaryan’s travails. He had a disappointing game and tended to get caught in possession or chose the wrong passing option.
The other key issue was that centrally the teams cancelled each other out. United had two players in the deep in Matic and Herrera, (although Herrera was usually slightly higher) and one much higher in Mkhitrayan. Tottenham has one player in the deep close to Mkhitaryan, which was Sissoko, and two players higher in Ericksen and Winks. The consequences of this was that space was at a premium throughout the half. Neither team clear cut chances so the score at half-time was 0-0.
Neither team made any halftime substitutions but United started on the front foot and took control of the game. They did this simply by taking more time to pass the ball forward. Rather than a rushed early forward pass there was now a slower more patient build up.
Perhaps as a consequence of this Mauricio Pochettino was the first manager to make changes. He made two changes in the 61st minute withdrawing Son for Llorente and Sissoko for Dembele. Spurs didn’t change shape but they improved significantly with these changes notably with Dembele acting as more of a fulcrum than Sissoko had done. This allowed Spurs to enjoy a period of some meaningful possession. Noticeably Delle Alli and Ericksen began to drop deeper and Dier, the middle player of Spurs back three tended to push higher. This allowed Spurs to circulate the ball although a lot of this play was in front of United who sat in and retained their shape whenever Spurs had the ball for any period of time.
United and Spurs with second half substitutions
United weren’t completely passive however as within a few minutes of Spurs making their changes Mourinho also made changes replacing Mkhitaryan with Lingard in the 65th minute and Rashford with Martial in the 69th minute. These changes worked for United as Lingard was far more effective in the number 10 role. He was full of energy and his movement was far more flexible and so unpredictable than Mkhitaryan had been. His unpredictable movement also pulled Tottenham’s defensive shape around and began to open gaps for Martial and Lukaku to run at. United had three really good chances before they scored, the best of which a Lukaku header hit the post.
United eventually scored in the 81st minute with a goal which was ironically a consequence of a long ball forward flicked on by Lukaku for Martial to run onto. Boom! The run exploited deteriorating discipline in Spurs defensive shape. Effectively Spurs had become more adventurous with substitutions that they hoped might create chances to win the game. United retrained their defensive shape as the game became more stretched and by this point Mourinho had made substitutions design to set United up to strike on the break. We have seen this before of course and fortunately it was a strategy successful again here.
This was a tight game, with space at a minimum, particularly in the centre of the pitch. Despite this United looked comfortable and never really looked like conceding a goal and in fact haven’t yet conceded a goal in the league at home this season. Tottenham might point to the loss of Harry Kane to injury for this fixture but United were similarly missing Pogba which in many respects made this context a fair fight; both sides missing their best player.
United can take confidence from this win though, the tactical plan was right and whilst it wasn’t executed to a level of perfection it was executed well enough? Mkhitaryan has struggled in recent weeks and he had a poor game again here; United’s forward play was a little hurried and uncoordinated at times, perhaps as a consequence, and all too often Lukaku received the ball with his back to goal. That doesn’t work well.
Mourinho demonstrated his tactical flexibility switching to a back three and pushing his wingbacks forward. When Pochettino adjusted his approach Mourinho exploited this with his own adjustment, the now familiar switch of the Rashford/Martial combination and the introduction of the energetic and dynamic Lingard. Amidst all the talk of United’s defensive approach there is no doubt that the extent to which opponents, particularly accomplished opponents are adjusting to counter concerns regarding United’s ability to score goals, especially goals on the counter-attack is being under-estimated. Liverpool and Benfica have done this in recent weeks, there is no doubt Tottenham similarly did that here. When they diverted from their game plan United scored