The clash between Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur was more than just another Premier League fixture as Jose Mourinho came to Old Trafford for the first time after his spell at the club. Since he didn’t end up with them on the right foot and was seen as the main cause of their poor form at the time, this match was filled with a smell of revenge in the air, from the home team’s side as much as from the Portuguese’s.
In the end, his former club managed to secure a 2:1 win, with what was probably their best game in this season and possibly saving their manager in his job for at least one more duel. This tactical analysis will show you how the hosts managed to overpower Spurs using their tactics and getting the best out of the opponents’ faults.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær went into the game with his usual 4-2-3-1 formation with his side relying on the well-organised aggressive play in the high zones of the pitch. The main acter of their actions was Marcus Rashford who was more or less the free-roamer, originally positioned on the left flank. He had attacking support from the youngster Mason Greenwood at the top and Dan James next to the opposite sideline, while the midfield was controlled by the trio made of Scott McTominay, Fred and Jesse Lingard.
The away team’s coach set his team in the same formation but with a slightly different gameplan prepared for the match. His idea was to take over primacy in the central zone of the pitch through Moussa Sissoko and Harry Winks, who were the action-starters for their side. The four players playing in front of them were Dele Alli as the second-line threat from the attacking midfielder position, and the three attackers embodied in Heung-min Son, Lucas Moura and Harry Kane.
United’s aggressive game
The team from Old Trafford knew what they have against themselves from the first minute, so they tried to push high and cut down the progressive lanes for Tottenham. They planned to play it out of the central zone with a clear idea to transform to the higher one if the situation allows them to, so they time and again moved forward and tightened the pitch for their opponents.
Manchester United was really aggressive in those situations trying to force the opposition into errors in the touchy areas of the field pointing out Davinson Sánchez and the two of holding midfielders as the key players to press on. Those footballers were too slow in possession and weren’t that secure on the ball so the hosts managed to win the balls out of high pressure or even counter-pressing.
As we can see, the home team went strong in the final third in order to regain the possession, closing the forward-pass options and trying to put the opponent in a no-way-out situation. Although Solskjær’s side’s press wasn’t always well-organised and disciplined enough, they were faster than Tottenham players and managed to utilize from their bad decisions and poor passing in the opening stage of the attacks.
The positioning of Winks and Sissoko in those phases of the actions additionally helped them to close on them while not spending too much energy on it. Two midfielders stood too close to each other practically guarding one another and making themselves easy to be guarded by the opposition.
United used what Mourinho’s players gave them and set their block tight and were disciplined so the ball can’t move forward through the middle. Two lines of three were placed solid and Spurs couldn’t find the way through the Manchester’s lines, so their most dangerous attacks came from the flanks.
Even in the lower setups, the hosts kept the good block organisation. Their idea was to close the central and inner corridors along with the creative part of Tottenham’s team in them by positioning narrow and staying close to each other.
Man United’s central block moved together very neatly and disabled the opponent’s defenders to play it through the lines to their midfielders. Those players were basically shut down in the restricted areas in which Solskjær’s men had numerical superiority over them, with McTominay and Fred being in control of the situation in those zones of the pitch.
The midfield influence
This game was decided by the central zone play and by the fact who will take control of the midfield. The hosts have taken that premise seriously and have tried to be in charge of that part of the pitch right from the first minute.
Fred and McTominay started growing as a pair throughout the last few matches and in this duel, they have shown that they could easily be a great tandem if they keep on progressing this way. The two of them were quite secure on the ball and didn’t panic under pressure which enabled their team to move forward and break Tottenham’s lines.
In the picture, we can see how the Brazilian coped with the opposition’s pressing thinking forward and playing the ball without many complications. His speed-decisions and precise passes towards the attackers made it possible for United to beat the away team’s defensive structure.
Holding midfielders also provided their higher teammates with support in the final third with their runs and constantly being the backwards-pass option if needed. McTominay ordinated pretty good between the two boxes and got himself in good situations in the attack from time to time due to his sense for space.
Those runs were possible because of the good spacing of Manchester United’s forwards and Lingard who did a great job motioning in the final third and switching places between themselves. Rashford was the main catalyst of their team and has created most of their opportunities with his in-possession game mostly rushing down the left-hand flank and causing problems to Serge Aurier.
The other player that was of huge importance for the fluidity of the home team’s attacks and their directness in deciding zones was Lingard. He repeated his fake movement time and again confusing opponents and dragging the focus to himself while freeing the room for others to exploit.
As we can see above, he perfectly moved deeper in the half-space and basically called the defender to go with him, which opened up the gap between the lines for Fred to run in. The Englishman did those manoeuvres with ease and in a sophisticated manner and they were a joy to watch, as much as they were lucrative for his side.
Man United didn’t forget to play in high zones while in possession, and even though that wasn’t a clear possession-based football, and although it lacked on directness in some situations, the rhythm of their attacks was high and goal-oriented. They tried to push most of their players forward, with the fullbacks sitting high in order to make the use of the free spaces in the box and close to the box behind the Tottenham’s last line’s backs.
This was their setup when Mourinho’s men lowered themselves and let them play around the block. Jan Verthongen’s back was the main target when the hosts arranged their actions this was, as their wide players had a pace advantage over him when faced towards the goal.
In spite they’ve lost this duel, the away team had their moments and can be furious on themselves when thinking about their own faults. They weren’t that direct and creative, which made it easier for their opponents to neutralize them, and they didn’t find the way to disrupt United’s block with deep forward passes.
Solskjaer shut down the play through the central and inner corridors so it hugely reflected on Tottenham’s plan. From the start, they tried to pair Son and Alli up top, who repeated forward runs and second-line run-ins, while Kane tended to come lower and participate in the action organisation.
As it is shown, the mentioned duo positioned themselves closer to the box than their striker, and they tried to overlap inside runs from these spots. They rotated and switched roles – one time Son would cut towards the closer post, the other the same thing would do Alli with Korean running to the further one. Manchester United closed those runs with their good communication and action-tracking. The defenders were positioning very well and were intercepting those passes before it got dangerous, providing each other with correction at the same time.
Spurs were left with no options through the middle so they needed to change the approach and started playing down the flanks, relying on crosses addressed to their run-in force of the team.
Alli kept on pushing forward towards the box and being the threat from the second plan, which resulted with him getting a goal next to his name, but most of the alike passes weren’t successful or got to him and left him with no options from there. Manchester’s defenders were moving good enough to disable him to have passing-options so they often regained possession out of these scenarios.
The crosses that came from Aurier were mostly sent to the further post and were meant for the mentioned players who were good in that segment of the game. However, United managed to cope with the threat they could cause by numerically overpowering them in those areas and keeping their negative transition on a high level.
They succeeded in making the attacking part of Tottenham’s side harmless by keeping it tight and discipline, expelling Moura out of the game, and keeping Kane far from the goal. Son and Alli were the main threats, but they always found themselves in numerical-inferior situations so the job for them to endanger the goal from those settings got way more difficult.
It is sure to be said that this was the best performance Manchester United had the whole season. As it is shown in the analysis, they managed to keep their tactics neat and to be disciplined throughout the 90 minutes, knowing their limits and forcing Tottenham into making faults. Mourinho’s men didn’t have good solutions to break the organised structure so they went home with zero points in their pocket, but it is clear that they have changed the footballing approach since the new coach arrived.
The Red Devils are in a good position after this match, but they can’t be calm yet since they have a huge clash against Manchester City coming at them on Saturday. Spurs are still in the transitive period and will get better, but Mou will need to wait for his revenge for some other time.
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