This Monday, in a match that many of us Americans probably can’t watch because of day jobs and other stupid things like that, Tottenham Hotspur will head to Old Trafford to face Manchester United. Much has already been written about United, who have seemed to already pitched their tent firmly in Crisis Land after a 3-2 loss at Brighton last week, and who are clearly in the throes of Mourinho Year Three.
That’s certainly better than going up against a settled, happy United, but it’s also what makes this Monday’s match a little fraught for Tottenham. Because, even if the rumors are true that Mourinho is unhappy and hates his players, and his players hate him right back, there will forever be “Lads, it’s Tottenham” and United always seem to show up whenever they play Spurs, especially at home. You have to go back to 2014 to find Spurs’ last win at Old Trafford, and they’ve only notched two wins at the Theater of Dreams in the Premier League era. It’s not historically been a happy place for Spurs.
There are some things that Spurs can hang their hats on thanks to the Brighton match. While United had the bulk of possession against the Seagulls, it wasn’t exactly free-flowing football. The midfield of Perreira-Fred-Pogba didn’t exactly set the world on fire either, and Spurs target Anthony Martial, starting for the injured Alexis Sanchez, looked deeply frustrated and unhappy. You’d rather go up against demoralized players than settled ones.
United have some injury doubts as they head towards the match. Alexis Sanchez could miss his second consecutive match with a knock he picked up in week 1, and there are questions about the fitness of Luke Shaw, Nemanja Matic, and Antonio Valencia.
In some ways, with things in disarray and the manager seemingly not far from being sacked just two matches into the season, this seems like the perfect time to go up against Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United. On the other hand, I’m not sure there’s ever a perfect time to go to Old Trafford. This match still makes me really nervous.
How will Spurs line up against United?
After last week’s win over Fulham, a match that saw Spurs roll out a back-three formation for the first time since Toby Alderweireld went down injured last season, it’s probably safe to say that most of the team picks itself. In fact, I dare say that most of the players that started last weekend at Wembley Stadium will probably start again at Old Trafford. We MIGHT get some mild rotation — Serge Aurier for Kieran Trippier, perhaps, or maybe even Erik Lamela’s sharp elbows for Lucas Moura’s tricky feet. But considering both Trippier and Lucas are coming off of pretty good performances (and both scored against Fulham), I wonder if both will start again this Monday.
That’s why I think the key personnel choice comes down to one question: Davinson Sanchez, or Mousa Dembele?
It’s not just a question of one or the other, too — it’s a question of overall tactics against a United team that is almost certainly going to be set up to frustrate. Mourinho doesn’t always park the bus: you only have to look at last season’s 1-0 loss at Old Trafford, a game where United went out on the front foot and tried to attack Spurs from the outset. But when his back is against the wall, as you can argue it is now, it is not at all unusual to see Mourinho’s teams hunker down, take the air out of the ball, and try to hit back on the counter.
So the Davinson or Moose debate comes down to how Mauricio Pochettino wants to play against United. Starting Sanchez implies a back three formation, which means one less midfielder, but likely more of an attempt to keep United on their back heels. Having an extra defender on the pitch would also help against Romelu Lukaku, who is likely to give even the likes of Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld a tough time.
Starting Moose means perhaps a more balanced approach, but would signify Pochettino’s intent to try and control the midfield. On the one hand that seems like a decent option if the idea is to try and pick the lock of a bunkered United defense. On the other hand, Paul Pogba is almost certainly starting for United, and Dembele has historically had problems against Pogba. It’s also an open question whether playing a more creative game will benefit Spurs against a United team that is all too happy to ruin the sport of football.
So which is it? Considering available personnel and the fact that I’m still not convinced that Dembele is ready to go a full 90 minutes, I think we’ll see the 3-5-2 again at Old Trafford. However, I think Pochettino also saw how Fulham adjusted to Spurs’ tactics in the second half, and it wouldn’t at all surprise me if he makes some tactical tweaks again if things aren’t working.
Here’s my starting lineup for the Old Trafford match. What’s yours?