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Tactics Break: different match, same issues for Tottenham vs. United

Manchester United broke down a timid Tottenham in the second half. Here’s how.

Tottenham Hotspur v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Tottenham Hotspur FC/Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images

Another matchday, another disappointing result for Tottenham Hotspur fans to stomach. It’s not just the result either - the fact that Tottenham, time and again, fails to perform against quality opposition is perhaps the clearest tell-tale sign that whatever Jose Mourinho is trying is not working.

There were three things I noticed from the match today that are worth discussing.

Tottenham Fail to Provide a Consistent Threat Against Top Opposition

This season, Spurs have failed to build a system to consistently create goal scoring opportunities. Kane and Son’s dynamic from earlier in the season exclusively relied on chemistry and form of two players. Bale had an excellent month or so in his loan spell, but after his form dropped off, he’s been relegated to the bench again.

Mourinho typically asks his forward players to interchange positions constantly, in a bid to both confuse defenders on who to cover and also create space for teammates. Spurs are eager to use the flanks, depending on personnel, to build momentum and play short passes to exploit said spaces and progress the ball. On paper, it makes sense, and we see success against teams that are more defensively fragile.

But against the highest quality teams, Spurs exhibit a mental timidity that makes this style of play not only a bore to watch but ineffective.

Tottenham’s attacking opportunities were infrequent and insipid against Manchester United.

A team looking to execute this style of play needs off the ball players to be constantly moving, on the ball players to pass quickly, and players receiving the ball to know what they should do with the ball as soon as they receive it.

Spurs currently don’t do any of the three. I plan to take a deeper dive into this - stay tuned.

Manchester United Used Wingbacks to Overwhelm Spurs

To keep the cliche alive - it was a game of two halves, with the second being a lot more lively as United looked to get back into the game. One way that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer tried to accomplish this was giving more license to Shaw and Wan-Bissaka to have a higher starting position and get more involved with attacks. Shaw had the second most amount of passes after Fred, and he wasn’t just recycling possession. As United attacked more and more down the left, Wan-Bissaka would be the extra man on the far side, coming into the box and helping outnumber Reguilon. It was this width that led to Hojbjerg being dragged out of position to help cover Tottenham’s left side, and left the center with only (comically) Son to try to stop the move that led to United’s equalizer.

Wan-Bissaka’s heatmap at the top, Shaw’s at the bottom. United are moving from right to left, so, their positioning resembles that of a winger than anything else.

Their constant threat on the flanks led pinned both Reguilon and Aurier back, limiting the impact they could have going forward.

The Sissoko Substitution Wasn’t as Crazy as You Think

As mentioned above, Tottenham were overwhelmed on the flanks, but especially so on their right side. Lucas finished the game with the most amount of tackles attempted due to how persistent United were through their left. Spurs did a good job of covering Fernandes and limiting his impact on the game, but of course the other Manchester United man you have to look out for is Paul Pogba.

Pogba has a free role at United, but he found a lot of joy on the left channel, where he had room to operate.

He had a massive impact on the game, consistently pulling the strings for the Red Devils. The ball near midfielder, typically one of Lo Celso, Ndombele, or Hojbjerg (along with Aurier) was consistently outnumbered, which afford Pogba the time and space required to be the creative force that United fans wished they saw more of.

Orange - Tottenham | Blue - Manchester United Amount of total attempted tackles in the game. Notice the streak of orange (Tottenham) attempted tackles on the right hand side of the Spurs defensive third.

This is why Mourinho sent Sissoko on, to help clog up the right side that United were finding so much joy in. Although it’s a substitution that affects Tottenham’s prowess going forward, at the expense of Lo Celso, it’s a substitution that made sense given what was occurring in the game at that point.

Mourinho cannot control individual player performances, all he can do is try to establish a system that plays to their strengths. While he has failed to do so with Tottenham’s attackers - and defenders - it’s harsh to criticize him for a substitution that might have, on another day, shored up the defense and given more stability, if less creativity, to Tottenham’s midfield.

I plan to record a match review video in which I’ll dive into these points and more later this week. Subscribe to our YouTube channel for weekly content.