Tottenham v Man Utd is coming on Sunday; the reverse fixture of a 6-1 drubbing that will surely not be repeated. We look at the big tactical questions…
1) Is Solskjaer v Mourinho the ultimate version of pandemic football?
The 6-1 back in October perfectly captured the state of pandemic football at the beginning of the 2020/21 season: a lack of pre-season, coupled with playing in empty stadiums and pressure levels back at fresh-start zero, created total carnage. Six months on, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United will once again embody pandemic football, only this time that means the polar opposite of October’s madness.
Football is a slog at the moment. We are all feeling it, but none more so than fans of United and Spurs, whose respective managers’ lack of tactical detail when in possession – the absence of any structure or coaching when on the attack – means the football is vague and unfulfilling. Both teams drift, waft, amble; jogging up and down, left and right, but without any real sense of conviction.
The reason they are separated by 11 points is the atmosphere the two managers create (see point five). Solskjaer’s United don’t seem to mean anything, don’t appear to have a clear tactical aim, and yet they keep winning games through small moments of individual ingenuity. Spurs, through Harry Kane, are exactly the same – albeit considerably less successful.
All of which points to a dull game on Sunday in which two conservative managers play out a risk-averse don’t-let-them-counter war of attrition. Even if there are goals – and there are enough quality players, enough troubled defenders, for there to be several – it will all feel strangely unstructured, emotionless, empty. That is pandemic football, and these are the ultimate pandemic football teams.
2) Will indirect battle between Kane and Fernandes define the game?
Since Premier League tactics have regressed so much in the pandemic, it makes most sense to preview this game in simplistic old-school terms: it is a game of individual battles, of staying with your man, of overlapping full-backs. Proper football, none of that systems nonsense.
The most important of these battles is between Harry Kane and Bruno Fernandes, who operate in similar areas of the pitch for their respective sides. If the two defensive lines are pretty deep, and if the game drifts enough to make both teams look sluggish and leggy, then things will only open up if either of these players can find pockets of space in the number ten zone.
For United, it probably means using Scott McTominay to man-mark Kane. For Spurs, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg is the man to get tight to Solskjaer’s playmaker-in-chief. Keep an eye on just how deep Mourinho drops his midfielders, because if they are too close to their own centre-backs (or dropped into the back line altogether) then Fernandes will find the space he needs to get his head up and create goalmouth action.
3) Can Ndombele and Lucas take advantage of a flat United midfield?
There weren’t many positives to come out of that 2-2 draw with Newcastle United, of course, but in the early stages of the game there was one tactical sequence that can give Spurs fans some optimism ahead of Sunday’s big game. Although nominally a left winger in a 4-4-2, Lucas Moura consistently took up central positions, receiving the ball in midfield and dribbling directly at the heart of the defence. This action, if helped by Tanguy Ndombele wriggling through the lines alongside him, could be fruitful.
United’s midfield pair of McTominay and Fred is very flat-footed, it’s just we don’t notice very often because Solskjaer’s shape is relatively deep and compressed, limiting opponents’ ability to drive through the heart of midfield. But we did notice when United played Leicester City in the FA Cup last month.
Youri Tielemans easily cut through the midfield with a simple one-two with Kelechi Iheanacho to score Leicester’s second, a goal that highlighted just how slow to move both McTominay and Fred can be. If Lucas and Ndombele are on top form, they can emulate Leicester.
4) Will Rashford and Shaw take advantage of Spurs’ dodgy right?
Right-back has been a problem area for Tottenham all season, culminating in the 3-0 defeat to Dinamo Zagreb in which Serge Aurier was pulled around by Mislav Orsic. Japhet Tanganga has come in since then and stabilised things somewhat, although it was his sloppy pass that led to Newcastle’s first goal last weekend and Joe Willock’s late equaliser was built down Tanganga’s side.
Solskjaer will no doubt target this flank. Mourinho’s likely return to a 4-3-3 formation means there will be times, in the transition, when Tanganga is isolated one-on-one with Marcus Rashford – a problem that will be exacerbated as Luke Shaw comes forward on the overlap.
5) Will Man Utd come alive and Spurs collapse in the final 10?
Solskjaer praises his team; Mourinho throws his players under the bus. Solskjaer fosters self-belief with talk of the ‘United way’, using the Alex Ferguson era as inspiration for how the players should conduct themselves; Mourinho creates fear and self-loathing by criticising his team for failing to live up to his standards.
This is all the explanation we need for why United play with their chests puffed out until the final minute while Tottenham gradually retreat, sinking into themselves before collapsing late on. Manchester United have scored the most goals in the final ten minutes of Premier League matches this season (11). Spurs have conceded the most (9).
If this game is hesitant and low on quality, chugging along at 0-0, then as the clock ticks over 80 minutes we can expect things to decisively swing in Solskjaer’s favour.