Ole Gunnar Solskjaer may have brought the feel-good factor back to Manchester United, but Tottenham Hotspur represent the toughest challenge of his interim tenure thus far by quite some distance, and the most important too.
If the Red Devils have any hope of clawing their way back into the Premier League’s top four, they’ll need to beat a Mauricio Pochettino side that has failed to win just three of their last 18 games across all competitions.
So, will this game re-announce United as Champions League hopefuls, or will Tottenham further increase their 10-point lead over the Wembley visitors? Here’s everything you need to know ahead of kickoff…
The much-fabled phrase ‘Lads, it’s Tottenham’ inevitably comes to mind here. From their 53 Premier League meetings to date, United have won over half of those, with Spurs also winning less than half of the remaining 20 games. Inevitably, the Red Devils have scored almost double the amount of goals and kept over three times as many clean sheets, while their win rate in North London is twice as strong as that of the White Hart Lane residents.
But don’t be fooled into thinking that’s a fair reflection of the current status quo. Since quite incredibly going over 12 years without beating United in the top flight, Tottenham have lost just four of the last 13 encounters without suffering a single defeat at home. In fact, the last three meetings in North London have all been Spurs victories, while they also won the reverse fixture earlier this season – a 3-0 at Old Trafford.
It may seem strange to focus on two centre-backs when there’s so much attacking quality on the pitch and in good form right now – United have scored 16 goals in five games under Solskjaer, whereas Tottenham have amassed 23 goals in their last six across all competitions – but this comparison highlights the key differential between both teams.
Whereas Tottenham can compliment their attacking prowess with a solid and experienced defence, it remains to be seen whether Solskjaer has adequately plugged up a backline that has conceded the seventh-most away goals in the Premier League this season.
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Indeed, it’s incredibly telling that Victor Lindelof, a 24-year-old who has often been a figure of ridicule, has become United’s most dependable centre-back in terms of fitness and form, although a comparison with Toby Alderweireld shows the huge improvements he’s made.
Albeit from two less games, he’s been dribbled past once less than the Belgian, who is considered to be one of Europe’s best in his trade, while the differences for defensive errors and passing accuracy are marginal. For United to beat Spurs on Sunday though, Lindelof’s performance will have to be as strong as Alderweireld’s at the opposing end.
There’s a continuous narrative of Mike Dean being a secret Tottenham fan, but the statistics suggest he’s unlikely to do either side too many favours on Sunday. Indeed, Dean can be one of the most controversial and frustrating referees in the Premier League, and that’s highlighted by some key returns when compared to the 18 officials to work in the top flight this season, prior to this week’s action.
Whereas he ranks a mere mid-table for fouls per tackle and fouls per game, Dean is second and first for yellow and red cards per game respectively. In short, he’s not really in the business of giving players second chances – as soon as they fall afoul of the rules, he’s quick to exact some discipline upon them. Regardless of Dean’s apparent allegiances, both teams will need to be wary of that this weekend.
Tottenham enter this game at a distinct disadvantage, having played Chelsea in a somewhat draining midweek Carabao Cup clash. United, in contrast, have enjoyed warm weather training in Dubai (alright for some), but due to injures and the fact Pochettino set out pretty much his strongest side against the Blues, we’re largely expecting the Spurs boss to favour form and momentum over freshness.
The only real exceptions look to be at full-back. Serge Aurier returned to fitness with a pulsating performance over Tranmere and his dynamism, rather than Kieran Trippier’s technical quality, should be key for the Lilywhites against that speedy Red Devils front-line, even though the Ivorian is never too far away from calamity. Likewise, Ben Davies represents the more defensive and sturdier option than Danny Rose, who played the full ninety minutes in midweek. Captain Hugo Lloris, meanwhile, should replace Paulo Gazzaniga in goal.
After ringing the changes for the FA Cup, Solskjaer is likely to return to pretty much the same starting XI that beat Newcastle 2-0 at St. James’ Park on January 2nd. The only exception to that is Juan Mata coming out of the side for Jesse Lingard on the right wing; the Spaniard is a fantastic technician and creator, but he’s not the kind of player you want dwelling on the wing away from home. Lingard offers far better energy, defensive solidity and counter-attacking potential.
That, however, means ten changes from the side that beat Reading last weekend, meaning all but one of United’s starting XI against Spurs won’t have kicked a ball competitively for eleven days. Some rustiness early on could well be a factor, especially after Tottenham made such a blistering start to this fixture last season with Christian Eriksen scoring in the first minute.