Tactics Arena: Manchester United vs Tottenham Hotspur Preview

In the second release of FutbolPulse’s “Tactics Arena” series, Rahul Warrier and Nathan Clark discuss Sunday’s upcoming Premier League match-up between Manchester United and Tottenham Hostpur. This preview will encompass the most in-depth and diverse coverage of the match, spanning team news, tactical analysis, predicted line-ups, and much more.


Rahul: 3-0 was the scoreline when Manchester United rolled into White Hart Lane last season, in a match that in hindsight proved to be the difference-maker as United missed out on Champions League football and finished just four points behind third-placed Spurs. Of course, that did not account for Tottenham’s late collapse that masked their superb season, one which saw them push fellow underdogs Leicester hard. Tottenham had scored three late goals in that match to clinch the encounter; a similar scoreline this weekend would be an even greater disaster for United.

Both sides have drawn six of their 14 games so far this season. However, Tottenham have undoubtedly been the more impressive of the two sides, with the Lilywhites losing their only match against high-flying Chelsea (1-2) and currently riding off a 5-0 thrashing of Swansea. Their rivals, on the other hand, have drawn six of their last eight games, dominating Stoke, Burnley, Arsenal, West Ham and Everton yet failing to garner a much-needed three points. Mourinho will know that for all of his side’s improved performances since the van Gaal era, football is still a results game.

Spurs are six above United and are the form side going into the clash. A United loss could see any slim title hopes vanish, as well as Champions League qualification through the league for the second year running, which will not please the paymasters. This game arguably holds more import for United than it does for Spurs. Will Mourinho throw caution to the wind at home? Or will Pochettino build on his side’s fine league form?

Nathan: The level of caution that United take is the real talking point for this fixture as far as I’m concerned. Mourinho has gained an infamous reputation over the years for setting up very defensively against top of the table opposition. It is a method that has served him very well on the way to eight championships throughout Europe’s top leagues, and it has always made mathematical sense in the past. But this season, without the sense of security around picking up points against the weaker teams, and such a breadth of strength at the top this season, can Jose really afford to approach as many as 10 games with the attitude that a-point-a-piece is a good result?

Even if he does ‘park the bus’, a point still isn’t guaranteed. As Chelsea showed earlier this season, there are structural shortcomings to Jose’s 6-3-1 defensive shape.

Rahul, how do you see United approaching a home game against, points-wise, the weakest of their top 6 rivals?

United have not won a game versus a top 6 rival in the league this season. There was the 1-2 loss against Manchester City – where Mourinho was outsmarted by Pep – and the 0-0 draw against Liverpool – which is realistically a point gained. The 1-1 draw with Arsenal provided optimism considering United’s domination, however United were outclassed by Chelsea 0-4 from start to finish.

The United faithful will want Mourinho to put out a side that is not overly defensive and is strong enough to outmanoeuvre Tottenham. It is a must-win game considering United’s poor start to the season. There is a good chance that Mourinho reverts back to a 4-2-3-1, which he generally prefers for big games and would counter the opposition, but in order for the side to truly seize the initiative, he should stick to a 4-3-3. There’s no benefit in setting up to contain. While I feel Mourinho will naturally maintain a modicum of control in the defensive third, he will have realised the pressure piling up on him. At home, I expect him to be mildly cautious but not overly so.

Nathan, how do you see Spurs approaching the game, considering a win will open up a nine point gap between 5th and 6th?

It’s very rare for Pochettino to approach a game with a counter-attack mentality, which means that we should see a tight battle over the midfield area.

Control over the midfield has been the theme of the season so far for Spurs. Mousa Dembele is key to this area and his initial suspension and lack of match fitness has seen Spurs struggle with form.

He was seemingly back to his best as Tottenham thrashed Swansea 5-0. Dembele’s ability to progress the ball through the middle of the pitch, evading pressure and instantly counter-pressing every failed attack, meant the entire front four of Eriksen, Dele, Son and Kane all had fantastic games. But it’s unclear if this was a matter of Mousa being back to his best or just Swansea being exceptionally poor.

How do you see United lining up?

As I said earlier, it’s a toss-up between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-3. The latter is more suited to the mercurial talents of the world’s most expensive player, Paul Pogba. The last few games have seen Mourinho employ this formation, but he may choose to be more cautious and opt for two defensive midfielders. His choice of formation will determine how his side plays.

The defense will see de Gea between the sticks, with the impressive Valencia continuing at right-back. Phil Jones has been enjoying an extended run of games in recent weeks and should form a partnership with the returning Eric Bailly. How United have missed him! At left-back, Darmian is expected to continue (missing the Zorya game is proof) as Luke Shaw remains injured/unfit.

If Mourinho employs two defensive midfielders, one of those will certainly be Michael Carrick (also rested against Zorya). The former Spurs man keeps the side ticking, and they are clearly poorer without him. His partnership with Ander Herrera has been fruitful. That would also mean that Paul Pogba functions as a no.10, which is not ideal.

What is ideal, however, is a three-man midfield, with Pogba on the left-hand side of a trio including Carrick and Herrera. This layout better utilises the talents of the trio. In addition, it pushes Martial and Mkhitaryan further up the field; the duo seem to have broken free of their shackles and with some impressive performances in recent weeks, they are returning to their form of last season. What better occasion to cap off their resurgence than with a real performance versus Spurs?

Lastly, Zlatan Ibrahimovic will be the sole striker whether in a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3. The latter formation should be the one Mourinho goes with; it could be pivotal to their success.

Most importantly though, Marcos Rojo and Marouane Fellaini should preferably be in the stands.

Manchester United (4-3-3): de Gea; Valencia, Jones, Bailly, Darmian; Carrick, Herrera, Pogba; Mkhitaryan, Ibrahimovic, Martial

How do you see Spurs lining up?

Tottenham Hotspur (4-2-3-1): Lloris; Walker, Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Rose; Wanyama, Dembele; Eriksen, Dele, Son; Kane

In preseason, I wrote about why I think Manchester United’s squad was more suited to the 4-3-3. Why do you think Jose has been so reluctant to move to this shape? Is it just a stubbornness for his preference for 4-2-3-1?

It appears to be his stubbornness. After all, the 4-2-3-1 has been utilised by him at Real Madrid and Chelsea to good effect. However, his struggles at United have partly stemmed from his attempt to shoe-horn players into positions where they cannot perform at 100% ability. The system has to be catered to Paul Pogba, rather than Pogba catered to the system. Else, it would prove recruitment was not done with the tactical aspect in mind. Pogba is at best 70% efficient at CDM or as a no.10. United have three defensive midfielders in the squad, but only Carrick is favoured. Herrera is better further forward too. Their wingers are also better suited to playing higher up.

There is no explanation as to why Mourinho persisted with the 4-2-3-1. Did he not want to bow down to the “Einsteins” in the media? Was he so blinded by his ego that he wanted to make decisions solely of his own accord? There is no logical reason, but he has finally shifted to a 4-3-3 and the performances have improved. It is time Mourinho upgrades his tactical repertoire if he wants to stay at United for a long time. Ditch the over-cautiousness in big games and seize control, should be his mantra.

Is there a reason why Tottenham’s summer signings have underwhelmed so far with the exception of Wanyama?

Well I can defend N’Koudou and Janssen, who are younger players brought into the squad with a long term vision to slowly progress in understudy roles. Especially as they’ve so far only played while Spurs have been off-form.

But the purchase of Moussa Sissoko completely perplexes me. I’m not sure what our recruitment team saw in him or even what role he’s meant to perform.

I’ve been very impressed with our recruitment over the last couple of seasons and I fear now that with the resignation of Paul Mitchell we are moving away from an intelligent, analytics-based scouting method designed to pick up upcoming talents before they fully emerge. Instead, we may be returning to an era of overpaying for recognised names and players who’ve played well against us or at an international tournament.

Key Battles

As well as the already discussed battle over control of the midfield, especially between Dembele and Pogba, I’m terrified of what Mkhitaryan brings on the right flank. He’s finally settled in at United and what a player he is. His intelligence, rapid pace and crossing ability combined with target Ibrahimovic has me worried. Jan Vertonghen, while an outstanding reader of the game, has always had trouble with larger centre-forwards. Typically Spurs deal with this by cutting off supply at the source, but Henrikh may be too slippery for Danny Rose to contain on the counter.

In addition, as long as Rojo and Fellaini are out of the side, the obvious weak link is Matteo Darmian, filling in at left-back. Though capable, how he handles Christian Eriksen will be interesting to see. The Dane isn’t as fast as Son though, which may benefit the Italian. The obvious battle is in the centre of the park; whoever controls the midfield will control the game. How the centre-backs deal with their opposition striker will be vital too – Kane versus Jones and a returning Bailly will be intriguing. Kane has been in fine goalscoring form, but Jones has been playing well in recent times and his potential pairing with the dominant Bailly will result in a physical battle.

Which player from the opposition would you prefer to have in your side?

Rahul: Toby Alderweireld. What an improvement to the United defense he would be.

Nathan: I’d actually go for a player who’s not currently making the United XI. Morgan Schneiderlin would provide a fantastic alternative to Mousa Dembele, whose injury issues have been discussed earlier. I hope we are looking at Schneiderlin this January.

To conclude, what are your score predictions for the game?

Rahul: 2-1 to United. Mkhitaryan to score. Schweinsteiger to score the winner perhaps? Fanciful, but something has to give. United should finally win this weekend, though it will be a tough encounter.

Nathan: 1-0 either way. Looks like we’ll be in for a long wait for the opening goal if Jose does set up to contain.