Manchester United have an impressive record against the Premier League top six this season. They have claimed 17 points from 9 games. (Only Liverpool have claimed more points against the top 6 this season 19 points from 7 games).
One of the reasons for this is the stylistic set up in the bigger games which heavily favors Manchester United. Against the big 6 this season, MUFC average 41% possession against the big 6 this season going as low as 28% against City in March 2020 obtaining a successful 2-0 victory.
Manchester United have held 40% or less possession in 4 games against the big 6, obtaining respectable results in each of these matches.
1.City 2-0 W – 27% Possession, 2. City 2-1 W – 28% Possession, 3. Liverpool 1-1 D 32% possession, 4. Chelsea 2-0 W 39% Possession.
(All of the above stats sourced from BBC.co.uk)
A further look at the Manchester United’s setup during these games, over the last 3 ‘top six’ games, Manchester United have settled for a 3-4-1-2, given the success achieved with this, it’s likely MUFC will continue this against Spurs.
On paper this looks like the following:
As stated, one of the reasons for MUFC’s success in the bigger games is the resolute defence, in many of the big games, this season United have opted for a low block. This plays out in the following manner:
A 5-2-3 low block, with the wingbacks making part of the 5. A key point to notice is the compactness of Manchester United, very little space exists to play between the lines (this is only the 4th minute of the game!), a blanket can be thrown over 8 players part of the united deep block. A good example of the compactness is demonstrated by looking at Phil Foden’s position, inside 5m in all directions we see Manchester United players, with Matic also moving to prevent the passing lane to Sergio Aguero.
United’s midfield were effective at blocking passing lanes and preventing passes into the half-spaces, the trio of Fernandes, Matic, and Fred recorded 9 interceptions between them. (Whoscored.com)
However, this Manchester United shape is often formed when the opponent surpasses 3rd of the pitch or in sustained opponent possession. Before this Manchester United held a 3-4-1-2 shape looking to high press the opponent
Although some may argue City’s style of play forces the above approach this was present against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge as well:
As is well documented, Manchester United are well equipped to playing on the counter-attack given the profile of the forwards they possess who thrive on space to drive into. On turnover, Manchester United’s strikers split occupying the space left behind by the full-backs. They are found immediately on retrieval or channeled through the number 10, with the number 10 in greater space because of the stretched defence. An example: United’s goal against Liverpool, on turnover McTominay feeds James into the space left behind by Robertson who finds Rashford. (Martial and James were two forwards that day, see the positions taken up in between the full-back and CB)
Following failed initial counter-attacks, Manchester United’s fullbacks provide the second ‘waves’ of the attack. The best example of this is Manchester United’s first goal against Chelsea, Chelsea retreat into shape but providing an outlet are both wingbacks. In this instance, Wan Bissaka is the outlet (with Willams out of picture, making a late run into the box) who finds Martial with the cross making it 1-0.
This section aims to analyse the expected Spurs shape for the game, and why United’s3-4-1-2 will cause issues.
Mourinho has religiously stuck to his ‘pendulum’ 4-2-3-1. In defensive phases, Spurs have opted for a low block in the 4-2-3-1 shape, usually Mourinho likes to deter opposition build-up by opting for a man-marking approach on the deepest lying midfielder. An example of this can be seen in the Spurs Liverpool game, where Alli marked the deepest lying midfielder in Jordan Henderson.
This has been a key theme of Dele Alli’s defensive duties during opposition build-up, the midfield pivot then screens the ‘number 10 position’ with the wide players passively covering the wide passing options.
In attack,, here is where the pendulum ‘swings in’, turning into a 3-4-2-1 as presented by the screenshot below:
Aurier and Son occupy high and wide positions with Alli and Lucas operating as inside forwards. With Alli out due to suspension (BBC.co.uk), it’s probable Lo Celso will replace Alli in the starting line-up with the expectation Jose Mourinho continues to use the 4-2-3-1 shape.
Manchester United’s shape will cause the following issues to Spurs. Firstly, without Alli in the attacking midfield spot Spurs will look for the wide areas for attacking impetus. Only one Spurs player has completed 100 or more crosses this season in the Premier League which is Serge Aurier (next best active Spurs player Lamela (44)) [Premier League.com), on the other wing is Spurs most productive player this season with the Son producing 16 goal contributions in 20 Premier League appearance (Whoscored.com). Manchester United’s backline are set up to mitigate this threat in the following manner which they presented at Old Trafford when dealing with Trent Alexander Arnold and Robertson’s threat. Liverpool operates a similar attacking structure to Spurs using the 3-4-2-1. Here LFC’s wingers operate as inside forwards with Robertson and Trent providing the width while Henderson drops into the RCB position. Manchester United’s backline and midfielder essentially goes man to the man with the 3 center-backs picking up the front 3 while the wing-backs mark LFC’s fullbacks.
This forced Alexander Arnold and Robertson to attempt crosses from less dangerous less advanced positions, in this fixture Liverpool were restricted to 4 shots on target with 10 shots in total. In 29 Premier League games, LFC have only managed fewer shots in total and on target in 2 other PL games (Chelsea (a) and Watford (a)) [Premierleague.com]. Manchester United will look to negate both Aurier and Son’s threat through a similar approach with both wingbacks pushing high onto the wide players, this will limit the attacking potential of Spurs’ primary creative threats.
The next issue Spurs face is dealing with United’s transitional capabilities, in order to create and provide balance Aurier is encouraged to take up advanced positions, however often this is a very effective counter-attacking opportunity for the opposition to expose by direct transitional play in the channels. It will often mean on a transition a 3v2 scenario, where MUFC’s wide forwards occupy the channels up against only 3 Spurs Cente backs.
If Mourinho persists with his current system the above problems may arise, this system still needs working on alongside better personnel to suit the required profiles.
But in the short term, if there was ever a game for Jose’s pragmatism it was this one. As of December month-end Manchester United have an 8%-win percentage when dominating possession (Sky Sports). Manchester United have struggled to penetrate low blocks while the acquisition of Bruno Fernandes (Sky Sports) has improved this, it remains an underlying weakness.
But to be effective on the counterattack, Spurs may need to switch systems. By using a 4-3-3 this allows both wingers closer to Harry Kane, in more advanced positions. The need for engagement in defensive contribution is limited as the midfield 3 can then cover the spaces to the wide areas and centrally. As described above, Manchester United’s 2nd wave invites both full-backs up the pitch leaving space in behind to expose:
With both wingers in more advanced positions this allows for quicker turnovers which can provide effective and potentially dangerous transitions using the following shape below:
While also suiting the Spurs midfielders (Sissoko, Lo Celso, Gedson) who possess profiles closer to that of a ‘number 8’ rather than that acting in a midfield pivot.
To conclude, essentially this game should be deemed “whoever has lower possession wins”. We also need to consider the mental and physical state of both sides which will also have a big impact on the result. Regardless, footballs back but it remains a must-win for Spurs in their uphill battle for Champions League football.
Taha A /Twitter @TahaFTBL.
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