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Tactical Preview: Tottenham vs. Manchester United

The Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United Club Badges Photo by Visionhaus

Three months after Tottenham’s loss against RB Leipzig in the Champion’s League, the Lilywhites prepare for their first Premier League since the COVID 19 outbreak. Having only taken over a club in the middle of a season once in his career, Mourinho must have seen the break in football as an opportunity to further instill his tactical philosophy while the whole squad built its match fitness.

With results taking a dive in February and March, while not playing particularly attractive football, Mourinho has a second chance at a first impression. The first game back, against Manchester United, can be a launching point for a Tottenham 2.0 in the 19/20 season - it will be particularly interesting to see if Spurs learned anything from their 2-1 loss at Old Trafford this past December.

If Tottenham improve on their performance from December, Manchester United have some clear weaknesses that can be exploited.

Match in December - Lineup

The lineup for the match at Old Trafford that saw Manchester United come away with all three points. This was Mourinho’s 4th game in charge - the whole team, especially Dele Alli, had been electric in his first games but this formation proved to play into Manchester United’s hands. (via Wyscout)

Manchester United lined up in a 4-2-3-1 and kept their shape throughout the match. Mason Greenwood was expected to play off the shoulder of Sanchez and Alderweireld, whereas Lingard and Rashford would constantly rotate on the left side and James maintained his width on the right. Young and Wan-Bissaka bombed down their respective flanks, while Fred and McTominay combined to completely dominate the midfield.

Tottenham lined up in a similar way, but their shape would shift during the attacking and defensive phase. While attacking, Spurs built the play on the left then would try to quickly shift the ball to the right and find the extra man in Aurier. It was a much more lopsided formation, which saw Spurs become extremely concentrated in central areas. Dele, Son and Moura, occupied the same spaces while Kane played almost as a false 9 - dropping back to link up play.

Defensively, Tottenham shifted into a 4-4-2 with a medium block, and Dele/Kane tasked with blocking central passing channels.

Tottenham’s defensive shape. Young is pressured by Moura after he receives a pass from Maguire and passes it back. Meanwhile Kane and Dele’s cover shadow effectively negates United’s midfield as passing options.

This setup simply did not work against United, for reasons I’ll detail below. Defensively, Tottenham’s man-oriented press was disjointed and failed to restrict United’s progressive play. The two banks of four were not compact either (which can be seen in the image above as well) so once United bypassed the first press their attacking players could be found in plenty of space.

Tottenham Struggle to Progress the Ball

On the other hand, United’s excellently organized press nullified Tottenham’s passing game. Their high press put Tottenham’s backline under tremendous pressure - consequently the Lilywhites failed to build out of the back throughout the game.

United’s attacking players do well in limiting Tottenham’s build capability. Greenwood was instructed to force play to the right side as Sanchez is both less confident on the ball and less accurate with long passes when compared to Alderweireld. James, Lingard, and Rashford shift accordingly to ensure all short passing options are blocked.

Ole has been trying to implement a pressing regimen at Manchester United, as of late something has clicked for them. Consequently they are able to both neutralize effective buildup and create opportunities to regain possession in dangerous areas.

Manchester United played within a system that rewarded intensity and aggression. They positioned themselsves well to challenge for the ball (orange dots) higher up the pitch, as opposed to Tottenham who only completed two tackles in the attacking third.

Tottenham’s midfield has to play a larger role here, finding the angle to make themselves a passing option and be ready to receive the ball under immediate pressure. Both Sissoko and Winks struggle to free themselves from United’s defensive approach which just exacerbates the effects of a press.

Another situation in which the United forward line channel play towards Tottenham’s right side. Sissoko and Winks are occupying the same area while being marked by United players. Greenwood dropping into the middle third capacitates United midfield to stay compact while also maintaining numerical superiority (3v2). With Rashford covering Aurier, Sanchez is forced to move the ball backwards or attempt a long pass.

United’s proactive approach to defending all the way up to the attacking third paid off in dividends as Tottenham struggled to get meaningful possession up the pitch.

When Spurs were able to get the ball up the pitch, Kane dropped deep to aid in the buildup. Although we’ve seen this be an effective tactic is disorganizing the opposing team’s defensive setup, United seemed largely unphased by it, for two main reasons.

First and foremost, United’s centerbacks did not use a man oriented pressing system - Maguire and Lindelof were tasked with guarding their respective zones. Second, neither are as susceptible to being dragged out of position, as we’ve seen Bailly do before. Two players that are neither instructed to nor predisposed to follow Kane out of their position meant that United’s line stayed organized, while Kane became less of a threat with his positioning.

Kane drops but Maguire and Lindelof maintain their position, limiting the space that Dele and Son can run into. Dele does start a run but Spurs lose possession as Kane forces a pass towards him.
Kane’s activity during the match. On June 19th, Spurs will need to do a much better job in finding the Englishman further up the pitch where he is most dangerous.

For the upcoming match, Spurs need to

Spurs Out of Possession

In sharp contrast, Spurs seemed to be caught in two minds on whether to press or sit back. As noted previously, this resulted in disjointed pressing attempts that left open space behind Spurs players.

(Matic = McTominay in this screenshot). Dele and Kane curve their runs in order to cut off McTominay as a passing option for both Maguire and De Gea. Dele is slow to cut off the angle for Lindelof, however, and with no midfielder supporting the press United are able to easily bypass the press through McTominay in the middle. United players are able to run at Spurs players and create the elements of a counter attack.

It was all too easy for Manchester United to exploit the space between Kane/Dele and Spurs’ midfielders, as the latter were always a bit too far away to affect play in a meaningful way.

Kane pressures McTominay but the United youngster is able to find Fred in the half space. Only after he receives the ball does Sissoko pressure - but given Tottenham’s numerical superiority in the area Sissoko should have realized it was a good opportunity to cover the passing lane and force United backwards through Maguire.

Of course it’s understandable that Spurs suffered a bit of an identity crisis - Pochettino and Mourinho have conflicting philosophies in many ways, and it bears repeating that this was Mourinho’s fourth game in charge of a team that a well-established pattern of play for going on five years.

One thing is clear - Spurs simply do not have the personnel to play a compact low block and effectively carry out a ‘siege’ mentality. Although it’s worked against some teams, particularly in the Champion’s League, it’s been suicidal most other times. This is due to the nature of the players in our defensive line - Sanchez and Vertonghen can be easily dragged out of their shape, and Aurier’s mishaps in positioning/lapses in concentration are well documented.

Additionally, the team lacks an out and out defensive midfielder.

As we saw in my article regarding a Pierre Emile-Hojbjerg’s potential transfer to Tottenham, Spurs have faced the 5th most shots against in the Premier League. Not every team needs to adopt an aggressive playing style but Spurs are caught somewhat in the middle of the road, not being particularly good at executing a well organized press while also struggling to remain compact in sitting back - the result of which is the stat above.

However, if Mourinho has been able to implement an improved pressing stratagem, Tottenham can come out on top of Manchester United.

How Tottenham Can Exploit Manchester United on the Break

In a rock-paper-scissors manner, a team that presses high up the pitch can be beaten by exploiting the space that is left behind by their players. Of course, this is easier said than done, but Spurs did see some success in pressing United higher up the pitch to create attacking opportunities.

Spurs have a good defensive shape while United’s midfield energy begins to drop. Young takes a bad touch on the ball, triggering Lucas to apply pressure on the defender. Both Kane and Dele are making good use of their cover shadow while Sissoko also restricts space through midfield should Young find a way to play through Lucas. Notice the United overload on the ball-far side - the switch is on if United retain possession, but if Tottenham recoups the ball there is space for Son to exploit.
Lucas regains possession and Son sprints to make the best use of United’s vacated right flank. United’s central defenders have a good shape between them and their midfielders, essentially locking out the central channel as an attack route. Important to notice Winks’ supporting run for the attack, as Lingard tracks back in an effort to cover him.

Indeed, Ole encourages Wan-Bissaka to play down the right flank and support the attack. Although this would typically mean that the right flank is exposed for a counter, typically Fred slots in on the right side to cover Wan-Bissaka’s forward runs (I touched on this on my previous Eric Bailly article linked at the start of this post.)

The holes on the flanks are typically covered in United’s possession phase in the midfield. Once Spurs catch them upfield, the flanks are vulnerable to progress the ball.

One clear way that United can be hurt is for the opposing team to regain possession upfield, progress the ball through the opposite flank, and cut the ball back to the top of the 18. Time and again, United’s midfielders left this space completely exposed.

As Son lines up a shot, both McTominay and Fred are drawn to the play and clog the penalty box. Meanwhile Winks is completely open on the top of the 18 as Lingard is caught ball watching and doesn’t keep up with Winks.

Its obvious that when a team counter attacks another, they can catch its defense unorganized and individual players are more likely to make positional mistakes. For United, there is a trend of their midfielder(s) drifting towards the ball while the other midfielder (or #10) fails to cover the free man at the top of the box.

Against Everton, United misplace a pass towards Fred and Tom Davies is able to regain possession. He hooks it long towards Dominic Calvert-Lewin who is always more than willing to run in the channels, specially if they’ve been vacated by the opposition fullback as seen above. Both Gomes and Richarlison make supporting runs, but neither Fred nor Greenwood (playing as a #10) track back.
The move results in a blocked shot as United crowd the box, but notice the amount of space that Gomes has at the top of the 18. Siggurdsson recognizes the space just to the right of him as well and is just off screen sprinting towards it.

Fred is by far the most athletic of United’s midfielders, so if the Red Devils are caught in transition the player on the ball can expect to be pressured by Fred. As seen above, when Fred himself loses the ball, United’s midfield struggles to keep up with the run of play. Perhaps this is something that Spurs can capitalize on, pressure Fred to take him out of the play and exploit the space left unguarded by the midfield.

Even when Fred is involved defensively, however, since he tends to drift towards the ball, space can still be found in the central areas for the attacking team.

Fred sprints back to double team the man on the ball, and Wan-Bissaka has pinched in to help cover another attacking player’s run. Due to Mata’s lethargic tracking back, this opens up space for two Brugge midfielders to attack.

In the risk of redundancy - yet another example in which Fred is dragged towards the ball and United midfielders fail to cover the space in the central areas during a counter attack. This time the main culprit is Bruno Fernandes.

All of this may seem repetitive, but in football the difference between a one off and a trend in play is massive. Simply put, the gaps left open in the central areas of the middle third are a byproduct of Manchester United’s high pressing style and personnel. Of midfield options that include McTominay, Matic, Fernandes, Lingard, Pereira, and Fred, only the latter has both the athletic capability and willingness to track back purposefully on a quick transition play. United are taking huge risks by asking their midfielder that can diligently track back to cover the man on the ball, and Spurs attacking players (minus perhaps Lucas) have the technical ability to make them pay for it.


Through this post we explored what Tottenham need to do to improve on their last performance against United. In possession, the midfield needs to be more mobile in opening up passing lanes (perhaps necessitating the #10 to drop as well, or Mourinho moving to a back three), they need to be confident on the ball and individually resist the press, while also resisting the urge to rely on Kane to drop deep and act as a creative outlet. Defensively, the team must remain as compact as possible while utilizing an organized pressing system.

If Spurs can turn the ball over four or five times upfield, they can progress the ball through the flanks and find a spare man at the top of the 18.

It’s almost impossible to try to predict a lineup - although injuries are at a minimum, match fitness will no doubt vary from player to player, and the mental toll of the global situation that’s been occurring for three months has got to be taken into account. That said, I would be happy to see Tottenham lineup in the following manner.

Mourinho has drifted towards a three at the back system, and this game would call for it so Spurs can build effectively from the back. The match will be won or lost in the midfield - this is a phenomenal opportunity for Ndombele to show his worth, as Spurs need a technically sound/press resistant midfielder to progress the ball. More importantly, the trio of Ndombele, Winks, and Lo Celso will have to maintain a high level of activity both defensively and offensively; something we’ve seen from the latter two but rarely from the Frenchman.

No matter how Spurs lineup, it will be great to see the boys on the pitch again.

Thanks for reading. I know this was a particularly long piece, but I greatly appreciate you reading all of it.