The Premier League title might be out of reach for Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United but their contest at Wembley on Wednesday evening is still a huge game for both sides. For United, maintaining their current momentum is vital as we enter February and Champions League football looms, while for Spurs this match is the beginning of a difficult run of league fixtures. Their entire season rests on good results between now and their trip to Juventus in a fortnight.
The tactical approach that Jose Mourinho and Mauricio Pochettino will take is broadly predictable. The hosts will play their usual midfield-heavy football that relies upon constant ball rotation and overlapping full-backs while the visitors will, of course, sit deep and defend in numbers. It won’t be a high-scoring game – but it should be a fascinating one.
Here are five key tactical questions ahead of Tottenham v Manchester United:
1) Will Mourinho reinstate a 3-5-2 to accommodate Sanchez and Lukaku?
The last time Man United met Tottenham, Mourinho switched to a 3-5-2 formation to mirror the system Pochettino was using at the time, and although Spurs have since moved back to a 4-2-3-1, the Portuguese might be tempted to stick with five at the back. There is no doubt Mourinho will look to defend in high numbers and limit space on the wide Wembley pitch, but he will also be keen to play both Alexis Sanchez and Romelu Lukaku.
It is hard to see how both can successfully feature in a 4-3-3. Sanchez doesn’t like tracking back, which means United would leave too much space down their right for Christian Eriksen or Erik Lamela. Considering the visitors will spend so much time camped in their own half, it makes more sense to field Sanchez and Lukaku as strikers in a 3-5-2. That way, not only can the two star players hang up front for the counter but United’s wing-backs can push up to meet the Spurs full-backs.
Pochettino’s tactical system is very narrow; they swarm the number ten space in the hope of sucking opponents inwards before suddenly switching the play with a long diagonal to overlapping full-backs. This tactic is notably less successful against confrontational wing-backs who benefit from the added security of a central defender behind them, as proved by defeats to Chelsea and Arsenal this season. In both defence and attack, 3-5-2 is the best option for Mourinho.
Pretty sure martial will not start vs spurs anyways. Since its away vs a top team we’ll play 3-5-2..
Lingard is preffered because of his workrate, He’ll be a supersub tho!🔥
— Ruben Rønnevig (@MrRoennevig) January 26, 2018
2) Will Sanchez help speed up Man United’s transitions to punish Spurs’ high line?
United have only scored two goals in four league matches against fellow top five sides this season, pointing to a serious goalscoring issue caused by Mourinho’s ultra-defensive tactics. Throughout his career Mourinho has challenged for titles against just one or two other teams, which made playing for the occasional 0-0 draw an acceptable approach, but with the emergence of a big five in the Premier League, Man United cannot afford to take this approach in eight matches – or 21% of their league encounters.
This is one of the main reasons Alexis Sanchez was snatched away from their cross-city rivals this month. Snaking into the left channel, the Chilean is arguably the most important player on the pitch on Wednesday; if his new team-mates can consistently give him the ball, Sanchez will inject the sort of unpredictable energy United need to instigate the counter.
Although he rarely played in a counter-attacking team during his Arsenal days, Sanchez is perfectly suited to this approach. He is excellent at holding up the ball and playing with his back to goal, quickly turning opponents to create transitional moments that seemed impossible just moments before. Spurs’ high line and marauding full-backs make them vulnerable.
3) Is there enough dynamism in Tottenham’s midfield to halt Pogba?
Not that Sanchez can do it alone. Pochettino’s team are generally very good at recovering the ball when the opposition break, but watching Spurs in recent weeks it has become apparent they lack bite in central midfield. Both Eric Dier and Moussa Dembele look too slow on the turn to react – particularly if Paul Pogba is on form.
Like Lukaku, the France international could benefit enormously from Sanchez’s introduction. Suddenly Pogba will have options when he powers through the middle of the pitch, and assuming Sanchez cuts inside as Lukaku peels to the left, it is easy to envisage this three-pronged counter-attack wreaking havoc in the spaces around Dier and Dembele.
Tellingly, Dembele managed just one tackle and zero interceptions against Southampton last week, fouling six times. He doesn’t look up to the challenge posed by a newly dynamic United attack.
4) Can goal-shy Spurs finally raise the tempo with Eriksen back in the side?
Dembele’s and Dier’s leaden feet are symptomatic of a wider problem for Spurs in 2018. Their high-pressing tactics, coupled with their highly-drilled (and thus partially predictable) attacking patterns, has left Spurs jaded. It is going to take something special for Tottenham to score against a United side on a run of six straight clean sheets.
Fortunately for Pochettino, Christian Eriksen has recovered from his illness. The 25-year-old’s importance was underlined in Spurs’ 1-1 draw with Southampton when Dele Alli struggled to find space without his team-mate’s pinpoint passing. But Eriksen is not only the chief creator in the side; his movement in the final third creates space for Harry Kane and Alli as they drop into the half-spaces around the Denmark international.
Unless Eriksen is back to his best it is very difficult to see how such a tired-looking Spurs outfit can break down Mourinho’s stubborn defence.
For 3 years we've needed a winger for 3 years we've needed kane back up for 3 years we've needed Eriksen competition and for 3 fucking years we haven't got close to any sort it out and show some fucking ambition
— 1 dimensional mauricio (@yidoo90) January 28, 2018
5) Who will come out on top in the battle between Heung-Min Son and Antonio Valencia?
The most significant individual battle on Wednesday evening is between Heung-Min Son and Antonio Valencia. The South Korean has been magnificent in 2017/18, blossoming into one of the most consistently outstanding playmakers in the country. He also possesses the burst of pace and directness Tottenham will need if they are to pull United out of their shape.
Valencia is the best right-back in the division and perhaps the quickest; the battle between these two will be fascinating to watch. Kane isn’t going to find much space in the area and Eriksen’s passing won’t come to much unless Son’s arcing runs in-between Valencia and the centre-back confuse the United defence. With Chris Smalling in such good form, Son probably won’t be the match winner.
Alex Keble – follow him on Twitter