The uniquely chaotic winter schedule is what makes the Premier League the most exciting and demanding top flight in world football, and it’s thrown up a fantastic fixture this year in Manchester United’s visit to Tottenham.
Both clubs have endured their struggles this season after welcoming new managers in the summer, but with Louis van Gaal and Mauricio Pochettino’s methods finally seeming to kick in, results have improved over the last few months. Spurs have won four of their last seven in the Premier League, whilst United haven’t lost in eight.
The White Hart Lane clash on Sunday will feature two sides high in confidence and resultantly, it’s difficult to pick a winner.
But fixtures of such festive feistiness are usually decided by who dominates the individual battles, so with that in mind, here’s FIVE that could determine the outcome on Sunday.
Currently on a run of four goals and two assists in his last five Premier League appearances, there’s no question that Manchester United’s Robin van Persie is back to his former best. That includes a brace against Southampton, a single strike against Liverpool and this absolute stunner against Hull City:
As Gary Neville has often argued, the Dutchman is like a burglar – just as you think he’s in your pocket, he steals a yard of space to net a worldie.
Resultantly, Tottenham’s star centre-back Jan Vertonghen will have to be in top form on Sunday. He’s still yet to rekindle the magic of his debut Premier League campaign but the Belgium international’s performances have taken a notable upturn recently.
With rumours he could leave White Hart Lane in January after refusing to sign a new contract in September, this battle with van Persie is Vertonghen’s chance to prove he’s a part of the world’s centre-back elite, just ahead of the transfer window.
Nabil Bentaleb has forced his way into Mauricio Pochettino’s first team plans over the last month or so, ahead of Paulinho, Mousa Dembele, Benjamin Stambouli and Etienne Capoue to name a few, with a string of impressive performances against the likes of Everton and Crystal Palace.
The youthful defensive midfielder will face arguably his toughest challenge yet in Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney however, who’s been in predictably consistent form this season to claim six goals and three assists in 13 Premier League appearances.
It remains to be seen where the United skipper will feature against the Lilywhites – he’s been tested as a striker, a No.10 and more recently, a central midfielder under Louis van Gaal and injuries will likely factor into the Dutchman’s team selection.
But with either central or attacking midfield his most likely positions, it will be Bentaleb’s job to halt Rooney’s surging midfield bursts as much as possible.
He passed the ball around for fun against Aston Villa too, recording 94 passes with a 93% success rate, so Tottenham must put as much pressure as possible on the England captain when in possession or he’ll quickly pick them apart.
There’s grounds to suggest Michael Carrick will have to fill in at centre-half against Spurs, with Chris Smalling and Marcos Rojo still yet to return from injury.
But working on the proviso that he’ll feature in his preferred position of central midfield, the former England international’s main priority will be nullifying the talismanic threat of Spurs’ Christian Eriksen.
The Danish prodigy has been enjoying some fantastic form this term, finding six goals and one assist in 17 Premier League outings, and is certainly beginning to deliver on his much-heralded potential.
But perhaps most importantly, he’s Tottenham’s leading creator this season in terms of chances per match, as detailed below:
So if Carrick can stop Eriksen, Spurs will struggle to conjure up regular goalscoring opportunities.
The 33 year-old will have to stay switched on for the full 90 minutes however; Eriksen’s scored two last minute winners already this season, against Swansea City and Hull.
Once again, one can only speculate how Angel Di Maria will be utilised upon his return to fitness, but whether playing centrally or on the wing, it’s the left-hand pocket he loves to attack most.
That channel has brought him considerable success too, amassing three goals and six assists in 12 Premier League appearances since moving to Old Trafford for a record-breaking £59million this summer.
Thus, he’ll be regularly drifting in and out of Kyle Walker’s defensive remit, who is still on the mend after spending the first portion of the campaign sidelined through injury.
Stopping the 26 year-old midfielder will be no easy task, but famed for his blistering pace and trickery, Walker’s speed will be a huge asset when defending against Di Maria – particularly amid his trademark advances on the break.
Whether that’s enough to halt arguably the most talented midfielder in the Premier League however, remains to be seen.
Manchester United’s three-man defence had the desired effect against Arsenal and Liverpool, whilst the returns to fitness of Johnny Evans and Phil Jones have further strengthened it somewhat – at least on paper.
But it’s still very much a work in progress, with chaotic organisation and unfamiliarity aplenty, and it seems inevitable that it will become unravelled at some point over the winter period.
With that in mind, Spurs youngster Harry Kane could already be licking his lips in anticipation for the United clash. The industrious striker is amid a prolific bout of form at the moment, netting three goals in his last three appearances across all competitions – including this opener against Burnley last weekend:
High on confidence and seemingly spurred on by the spirit of the Tottenham support, especially at home, Kane will relentlessly pressure the Red Devils’ shaky backline all afternoon.
That work-rate may not necessarily translate into a goal, but it will undoubtedly lead to scoring opportunities for Spurs.