Tactical Analysis: Manchester United vs. Tottenham Hotspur

Tottenham Hotspur released an 11v11 training game on June 5th that can provide useful information for the upcoming game against Manchester United.


Most notably, the side wearing the home shirt used asymmetric full backs, creating a 3-2 build-up structure and an outlet on the right flank thus suggesting continued use of the strategy by José Mourinho’s side. Despite changing between a 4-2-3-1 and a 3-4-3 Spurs have been consistent with regards to fundamental principles, and this training video reinforces that.



The use of this direct switch has been common throughout Spurs’ season as Mourinho seeks to accentuate Serge Aurier’s strengths while minimising the impact of his weaknesses such as his tendency to make reckless and inexplicable decisions in his defensive 3rd. A consequence of this balancing act has been asymmetric attacking as there is a structural disparity in player positioning with the right flank having two players while the left only has one.


This allows Spurs to achieve numerically beneficial situations and force movement from the opponent’s defence which creates space on the opposite flank while maintaining defensive solidity however, it also makes them predictable and thus easier to prepare against. However, it must be noted this can be seen most overtly against teams that seek to force Tottenham into stagnant possession rather than forcing a turnover as Aurier acts as an outlet to advance possession, thus if Manchester United press high this is less likely to be influential although it will nonetheless be present.


Tottenham’s shape once in the phase of consolidated defending resembles a 442 with Harry Kane retreating to place himself alongside the attacking midfielder. This has the effect to prevent distribution to Manchester United’s double pivot as they are both covered which cuts off Manchester United’s main route of short central progression.


However, in the December fixture, Jesse Lingard occupied the attacking midfield role rather than Bruno Fernandes with there being a fundamental difference in their movement and how they seek to influence the game. Bruno roams to collect possession, exploiting the lack of positional discipline imposed upon him to influence in deeper regions enabling him to support the deeper midfielders struggling to progress centrally.


This deeper movement creates a conundrum for the opposition who have to either adapt around the movement, thereby altering their defensive shape. This subsequently creates more room for error individually as they have lost control of the situation as positioning is now being dictated by the movement of an opposing player rather than zonally meaning defenders now need to react to spontaneous events resulting in more complex decision making and an increased number of individual duels to cover for the space left in dangerous areas as a defensive midfielder must vacate his zone to follow Bruno.


The fluidity of the attacking midfielder has the potential to reverberate across the attacking line as the defensive team would ultimately have to adapt, creating more space for movement.


Conversely, Spurs could allow Bruno to receive possession deep while maintaining their structure which allows a high-quality player known for taking creative risks time and space in possession but it has the positive effect of allowing them to remain within their zonal regimentation and thus have the situation be more controlled. Regardless of which approach is adopted, Bruno Fernandes will require much more attention than Jesse Lingard which makes sustaining a solid defensive shape more difficult.



Another fundamental difference which makes inferring from the reverse fixture difficult is the return of Pogba to Manchester United’s starting XI. He offers another option for deep possession collection, possessing a much greater aptitude for taking advantage of tight marking set-ups as he can dribble past opponents and exploit the subsequent space which has much greater frequency and effectiveness than either Fred or Scott McTominay.


Fred and McTominay do however provide defensive solidity to Manchester United as their willingness to run and intensity amplify the effectiveness of Manchester United’s press. Manchester United have used a midfield diamond in the past which would allow all these players theoretically to fit into the side.


However, that poses issues given the personnel as Bruno’s roaming would be negated by central compactness in possession and the only player with experience as a lone defensive midfielder at the club is Nemanja Matić thus meaning one of Fred or McTominay need to be dropped to fit in Pogba and Bruno thus not solving the issue. Notwithstanding the offensive burden that places on the full backs and the subsequent defensive burden placed on the centre backs having to cover the flanks when the opponent quickly breaks.


However, a solution to those issues could potentially be playing a 3-4-1-2 incorporating elements of the of the diamond which have been successful for Manchester United such as the role of the wide striker suiting Rashford and Martial as both are accomplished in 1v1 dribbling situations, with the former particularly thriving under such conditions considering his direct style of play. While negating issues such as exposed centre backs. 


Playing a 3-4-1-2 allows Manchester United to utilise another tactical weapon they have used this season which is the high wing back to counter an opponent that relies heavily on full backs for chance creation. This was seen in Manchester United’s home fixture against Liverpool, which was paramount in making Manchester United one of only two teams to take points off Liverpool this season.  



Adopting a similar strategy down Spurs right flank could be advantageous as it limits the supply to Aurier. Engaging high would allow possession to be forced backwards with greater frequency as tight marking makes progressive actions more difficult by instantly applying pressure thereby making turning risker as it invites an instant engagement thus it would cut uncontested routes of progression.


Achieving this is easier in a back three as the high wing back has an extra defender covering and who can potentially become man oriented due the positional freedom allowed by a back three to mark Spurs right winger tightly preventing link-up play and thus making progressive actions more difficult increasing the likelihood of either a turnover or a back pass. Thereby creating a numerical parity on the side Spurs seek to overload, countering their primary method of ball progression.


This could be undermined by rotations between midfielders to exploit the space created by the aggression down this flank. The shape would also prove beneficial during periods of consolidated defending, transforming into a back five which would grant United better coverage of the pitch, and thus more opportunity to engage with Aurier.


Shown below is an example of this: Lucas occupies the left meaning Aurier is free. In a back three the left centre back would be responsible for Lucas, thus allowing the wing back to better defend wide areas. 


The 3-4-1-2 shape also succeeds with regards to high central pressing because the positioning of the attacking midfielder and strikers naturally allows them to press/place themselves upon the opposition’s centre backs/holding midfielders during the opposition’s short build-up.


Therefore, when Spurs are building centrally space is naturally congested because of the narrow set-up. This could allow for a man-oriented press whereby the split strikers are responsible for the wide centre backs (right centre back and tucked in LB), Bruno the centre back (left centre back), the centre midfielders for their corresponding players and the wing backs tightly marking the Spurs players tasked with maintaining width.


Manchester United played like this against Manchester City to great effect which confined them into their own half for large sections of the game and prevented quick counter attacks, something particularly important against Spurs as counter attacks are fundamental to how they seek to attack. This had the additional effect of forcing play out wide which is beneficial as the touchline makes it easier for teams to restrict space and remain compact.


In this set-up, the striker would relinquish his duties to the centre back when the City’s centre backs received possession creating an open passing lane to the centre back while increasing the chance of a high turnover. Resulting in either a turnover or the centre back having possession to be pressed afterwards. Thus, Manchester United have demonstrated a willingness and an aptitude to press in a man-oriented manner in big games, making it difficult for the opponent to play out of defence.



Although, the effectiveness of this set-up was bolstered by Manchester City lacking an attacking aerial outlet. Tottenham however do have that option with Kane predicated to make his return from injury, which will limit effectiveness of a potential high press by United by making the direct route more effective and thus attractive.


Positioning himself on a particular centre back will be more difficult in a back three due the wider centre backs being wider in position and thus less appealing when it comes to winning possession in that area generally, but Kane is smart enough and good enough physically to compete with most centre backs aerially. 


However, Dele’s suspension could limit the effectiveness of direct attacks; nobody in Spurs’ team can replicate the role he plays which complements Kane’s hold up by providing runs in behind. Rotating to take advantage of the space left open by an aggressive centre back.


Therefore, rather than attempting to replicate partnership, Spurs will likely direct more of their attacks down the flanks as that is where the runners are. This makes Kane’s positioning more rigid as keeping the ball central for as long as possible becomes more important to ensure both flanks are viable options and that it is difficult for Manchester United to remain compact thus meaning most duels will be against Maguire.



Though, while meaning Kane cannot place himself onto weaker centre backs, the back three could potentially be worse in this situation as it is better suited to handling central attacks, particularly when the wing backs are pushed high.


Both Kane and whoever takes Dele’s place at 10 (Ndombele/Lo Celso seem the most viable) are good playmakers who can thread accurate balls to the flanks where Spurs threatening wingers such as Son Heung-min or Steven Bergwijn can capitalise on the space forcing a centre back to follow and close down, opening up space in the half-space providing the rest of the side do not seek to cover, or space on the opposite flank if they do cover.


Therefore, I suspect Spurs main chances will result from counter attacks down the flanks after Kane has received possession from a direct pass. Although, particularly, when Spurs are in transition the additional freedom a back three gives to centre backs to be aggressive could prove beneficial for United as it would allow Kane to be stopped at source with greater frequency will reduce the risk of killer ball being played should whomever is pressing lose the duel. Thus, it is still probably the best provision against Kane dropping despite potentially opening more space in wider areas.



To help negate this threat, Manchester United will probably want an athletic and positionally disciplined midfielder beside Pogba to help cover for second ball opportunities resulting from the direct pass. Athletic because of the recovery required after supporting the high press and positionally disciplined to complete Pogba in a midfield two allowing him to roam more frequently.


Scott McTominay seems to best fit this criterion as despite Matic being better with regards to positioning and positional discipline he can be lethargic which quick counter attacking teams can punish. Fred’s quality is predicated largely on his pressing intensity which while useful in a high pressing set-up it does not complete a midfield with Pogba as much like Pogba he suits having somebody more disciplined beside him. Placing either as the holding midfielder would limit their effectiveness.


Tottenham’s midfield configuration needs to be oriented both around breaking Manchester United’s press and preventing counter attacks from being effective. Ndombele is Spurs most press resistant midfielder and could help diversify attacks by breaking into space after beating a man, providing an alternative to the direct ball to Kane which subsequently would allow Kane to become more goals oriented as the ball would be released wide earlier allowing him to run into the box.


However, Manchester United are exceptional at exploiting space which Ndombele has become notorious for leaving and not adequately recovering from. Meaning playing him in the double pivot where he could be most effective due to having greater opportunity to collect possession deep is risky.



Dele’s suspension could allow him to function as the attacking midfielder to partially relieve him of defensive duties, with Lo Celso forming the pivot alongside one of Moussa Sissoko, Eric Dier or Harry Winks. However, because of the magnitude of the game I would anticipate a more cautious approach from Mourinho and as Lo Celso’s has been impressive while playing for Tottenham, he appears to be a guaranteed starter, potentially as the attacking midfielder.


Moussa Sissoko has the desired (if lesser) dribbling and space exploitation ability of Ndombele while having a far greater defensive work rate which would allow him to occupy one spot in the pivot. With Dier acting as the stabilising force beside Sissoko.


One notable thing is Sissoko’s tendency to play on the right of midfield alongside the attacking full back, thus meaning the more attacking of both the double pivot and full backs are playing down the right, exacerbating the imbalance and forcing the right centre to cover space.


Rashford exploited this in the reverse fixture, and though the Paulo Gazzaniga’s goalkeeping was poor for the first goal, Rashford was afforded time and space, and United players rarely faced pressure during the build-up leading to Davinson Sánchez attempting to recover, vacating space for Rashford to shoot.



Thus, while the offensive advantages of Sissoko and Ndombele are noteworthy they do not provide the same protection Winks or Dier provide in midfield and therefore I would anticipate the English duo would be Mourinho’s starting midfield alongside Lo Celso. 


To conclude, I would anticipate a close game as both sides are similar in quality. Manchester United have the potential to make it extremely difficult for Spurs to consolidate possession in dangerous areas through their high pressing while also containing a large threat on the counter, or any phase where Spurs are transitioning from attacking transition to defending such as through high turnovers.


Although I would equally expect Mourinho to be aware of such threats and perhaps counter with greater caution and seek to go direct more frequently despite Dele’s suspension. Spurs, on the other hand, have an extremely high quality multifaceted attack. Kane can act as an aerial threat, playmaker and in general a complete forward. Their wingers are quick and threatening in the final third while their midfield will most likely contain a tremendous creator in Lo Celso.


However, Spurs when in consolidated defending have been poor all season, with individual errors often proving costly which makes sustaining pressure difficult. Thus, a good attack alone cannot win them the game, neither will an overly cautious approach as despite Manchester United’s struggles deeper defences this season, as many of those performances came under the context of lacking either or both of Pogba and Bruno Fernandes.


By: @mezzala8

Featured Image: @GabFoligno