Nobody ever compared Jose Mourinho to Sir Matt Busby. Manchester United fans are understandably excited by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s immaculate start as caretaker manager but their optimism is tempered by the knowledge that things have been pretty easy so far. The first real test comes this weekend.
It just so happens to arrive after Solskjaer’s first real week on the training field with his players, and it just so happens to be against Mauricio Pochettino, the favourite to succeed Solskjaer in the summer.
It’s difficult not to get carried along by the excitement surrounding this game, and not just because of the narrative. Tottenham Hotspur’s ruthless attacking talent should comfortably outclass a pretty average United defence that’s currently transitioning 20 yards up the pitch, while Solskjaer’s aggressive commitment to attacking football should find success against a Spurs team seriously weakened by injuries and suspensions. There will, surely, be plenty of goals.
Here are five tactical questions ahead of Tottenham v Man Utd:
1) Exactly what does a week of Solskjaer tactical coaching mean for Man Utd?
Solskjaer has admitted that tactical instruction was kept to a minimum during his first few weeks on the job, the hectic Christmas schedule severely limiting his time on the training field. His impact thus far has been almost entirely psychological.
However, the energy, attacking intent, and central focus of United’s four league performances under Solskjaer were already closely aligned to the tactics he deployed at Molde. The emphasis in Norway was on possession football and counter-pressing, with attacks built via a combination of extremely high/attacking full-backs and inverted wingers that swirl in the middle of the park. Solskjaer is keen to use the half-spaces to full effect, with central midfielders and wingers regularly dropping into the vertical column between centre-back and full-back to maximise short-passing options.
Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard are already linking superbly in these spaces, switching positions and bunching together to pull opposition defences out of shape. However, there are still plenty of things Solskjaer has had to work on since the hellish run of games ended on January 2.
Keep an eye on the positional play of the United full-backs. Currently they aren’t bombing forward with quite the regularity that Fergie-inspired Solskjaer would like, and both Antonio Valencia and Luke Shaw have probably endured some serious crossing drills this week. Their output needs to increase, as does the smoothness with which Victor Lindelof, Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matic build through the middle of the park.
Whenever Shaw and Valencia have the ball in attack just know that it's dead
— President Buhari. (@AbdulDeezed) January 2, 2019
2) Will Spurs’ complex counter-attacking movement outsmart United’s high defensive line?
The problem with new tactical instruction is that gaps are inevitably left for organised, complex tacticians like Mauricio Pochettino to exploit. While United press high up the pitch – their shaky centre-backs leaving acres of space behind them as the full-backs push on – Tottenham’s new penchant for long-ball counter-attacks should punish any naivety from the visitors.
Harry Kane’s desire to drop deep and play like a number ten is paying dividends at the moment, largely because Pochettino has switched to a 4-3-1-2 formation that allows two players – Heung-Min Son and Lucas Moura or Dele Alli – to run beyond Kane. Many defences, particularly those with a high line, are getting caught out by the confusing sight of a striker dropping deep and two attacking midfielders making late runs on the shoulder of the last defender.
When needed Tottenham will use plan B, a direct pass over the defence. Aka: long ball. Football basics in the modern age. #TOTCHE
— Rodney Cyrus (@rodney_cyrus) January 8, 2019
United fans should be worried that Marco Silva’s bold expansive tactics saw Spurs score six, five of which came directly via vertical through balls towards two forwards sprinting beyond the back line. The last time Tottenham played a top-six team, a 2-0 win over Arsenal in the League Cup, both goals were long balls over the top of the defence.
Gone are the days of Pochettino’s Spurs attacking predictably, elegantly passing their way into the final third. It is equally common these days to see a long diagonal pass from Toby Alderweireld hit the front three; with Lindelof and Phil Jones the opponent, Spurs will definitely be trying the more direct route at Wembley.
3) Can free-roaming Pogba dominate against a soft Spurs midfield?
But Tottenham are not without weakness. Injuries to Victor Wanyama and Eric Dier (highly unlikely to recover in time to start on Sunday) plus the imminent sale of Moussa Dembele leaves Pochettino’s midfield worryingly light on defensive clout. Paul Pogba could run riot from his new number ten position.
Wolves beat Spurs 3-1 at the end of December thanks primarily to this developing softness in midfield. The second and third goals scored by Nuno Esperito Santo’s side resulted from Ruben Neves finding the time and space to play a crucial through ball, opening up the pitch and leaving the Tottenham defence exposed. Tellingly, Moussa Sissoko failed to make a single tackle or interception in that game. Harry Winks managed four, but he’s suspended for this weekend.
There’s no need to go into much detail regarding Pogba’s renaissance. Unshackled from defensive responsibility and given the free role he’s always craved, Pogba has four goals and three assists in his last four games. Is there anyone in the Tottenham midfield capable of stopping him?
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) January 9, 2019
4) Which of Eriksen or Herrera will provide calm in a potentially chaotic match?
Tottenham’s direct counter-attacking threat and Man United’s confident gung-ho football could create chaos at Wembley. It should at least bring us goals at both ends, which means after a wild, frantic opening, this match could be won by whichever side manages to settle quicker – to control the variables and dampen the other’s spirit.
And so an indirect battle between Christian Eriksen and Ander Herrera is worth exploring. Eriksen is in a deeper role this season, often shuttling up and down on the left of a midfield three. As Dembele’s influence wanes, Pochettino has put greater emphasis on recycling possession through Eriksen, who plays a crucial role in dropping deep and working the ball through the middle. Solskjaer’s narrow formation means the midfield will be highly congested on Sunday, making Eriksen’s work in tight spaces all the more important.
But hazard is somehow the best in the league 🤦🏻♂️not saying eriksen is but the amount of hype around hazard this season is ridiculous. pic.twitter.com/88Eos1XNxx
— A ⚡️ (@pochspurs) January 9, 2019
Herrera has been superb under Solskjaer, his incisive passing and intelligence on and off the ball helping United to sustain momentum. Herrera’s movements are sharp, allowing him to screen behind while his team-mates attack as well as play a crucial role in the initial build-up. As mentioned earlier, central midfielders that can pull wide to receive the ball in the half-space are essential to Solskjaer. His composure under pressure will be crucial up against the Spurs press, particularly with a stilted Nemanja Matic alongside him.
5) Will Trippier versus Shaw be the game’s most crucial head-to-head?
Kieran Trippier played a starring role in Tottenham’s 3-0 win at Old Trafford in August, linking constantly with Eriksen and Lucas Moura to overwhelm a helpless Luke Shaw. Shaw has played every minute of league football under Solskjaer so far, and with new instruction to get forward whenever possible he is more vulnerable than ever to a dangerous full-back like Trippier.
Trippier’s crossing is an under-appreciated weapon in Spurs’ arsenal; only Lucas Digne and Aaron Mooy complete more crosses per game than Trippier’s 1.8. Shaw is renowned for being error-prone, often drifting out of position when ball-watching, and consequently their head-to-head – should the game become stretched – may prove decisive.