Each week, Total Football Analysis will be tactically previewing the ‘Fixture in Focus’ drilling down into the key points that will define that fixture.
After narrowly scraping past Leicester City and losing to Brighton, how exactly will Manchester United beat Tottenham Hotspur and what are their current problems that need to be overcome? This tactical preview focuses on a team analysis of Manchester United’s first two league games and how they can overcome their problems.
Man United have had on average 53% possession and scored four goals from expected goals of 3.32. However, they have conceded the 5th most goals in the league. Defensive errors are causing Man United problems and the missed opportunity to strengthen in the summer may come back to haunt them.
One man who was in their sights, Toby Alderweireld, is likely to line up against them on Monday night. Tottenham have won both of their opening games, conceding twice and scoring five. They are also second to Manchester City in expected goals scoring
Interestingly, you would associate Pochettino’s Tottenham with high-intensity pressing, resulting in interceptions. Man United are actually higher with 112, compared to Spurs’ 106. It shows that their defensive structure is working well but mistakes are costing Mourinho’s side games.
Looking at Brighton’s first goal at the weekend, two individual defensive mistakes cause United problems.
Firstly, Ashley Young pushed too high as a right-back without any cover. Any three of the midfielders could have either provided cover or initiated the first press. Jose Mourinho is known for a well-structured team and during this move, the Red Devils were too easily broken down.
Secondly, Eric Bailly then has to provide cover, which subsequently leaves the near post exposed. This allows Brighton to send in a low driven cross. Victor Lindelof then loses concentration and a simple movement gets Glenn Murray free to flick past David De Gea.
All of these actions are a consequence of Ashley Young’s press and a lack of support from the midfield. Whilst the midfield are behind the ball, they are not in an effective position to start an initial press and provide defensive cover.
The team appears to be stuck in limbo. Is this because football has changed from the philosophy that won Jose Mourinho trophies? The players now realise that high-intensity pressing is winning football matches and they are stuck between implementing their own ideas and the disciplined, deep defensive organisation of their manager. One thing is for sure, to beat Tottenham, they will need a unified game model.
The difference between the two teams is goals conceded. If Manchester United want to challenge this year they need to perform better defensively than in the opening two games, where concentration regularly went missing.
As we saw against Brighton, Victor Lindelof switched off to allow Murray to poke home. In the opening game, it was Bailly who was at fault.
This time Bailly switches off at the far post to allow Jamie Vardy to sneak in at the back-post. Bailly has his back to Vardy and has no idea how he has positioned; he needs to open his body to see both the ball and the Leicester striker. These are basic defensive mistakes that you would not expect to see at Old Trafford. It highlights that their failings in the transfer market to secure a defensive leader could really impact their season.
However, it is not just the defensive line that has mishaps in concentration. This is also evident in set-pieces. Brighton’s second goals last weekend highlights this as they fail to react to the second phase of the corner.
In the second phase, there are at least three Brighton players unmarked in the Man United penalty box. There are arguably five, but one of the three is Shane Duffy, who scored Brighton’s second goal. Mourinho’s trademark organisation is not happening at set-pieces. Players are switching off and failing to track runs and this will only be punished by Spurs on Monday.
During pre-season we looked at how Manchester United can evolve this season. At present, we are not seeing any evolution in this Man United side. If anything, they have moved backwards. A tight defence and some man of the match displays from De Gea were the cornerstones of United finishing second. If they are to beat Tottenham, they must improve.
The full-backs are key to providing width, in particular Luke Shaw. This puts Mourinho in an awkward position – they need more width to attack Spurs but need to stay narrow to maintain a strong defensive structure. Concentration is the key, and Jose Mourinho needs to establish a strong defensive unit which can then enable Paul Pogba to flourish.
The key to beating Tottenham on Monday will be to counter their high-intensity press. Last season, Mourinho looked to counter Pep Guardiola’s press with targeted balls into the attacking midfielders and strikers. For Man United to be successful, I would expect them to employ the same tactic against Sours. The passing ability of Paul Pogba, Andreas Pereira and Nemanja Matic could make it a successful tactic.
The effectiveness of this game model can be seen in last season’s Manchester Derby.
Manchester City are looking to press the ball in their own half. Paul Pogba then makes a run from deep in behind the Man City defence. Alexis Sanchez then bypasses their press with a looped through ball and Paul Pogba is able to head home.
A high-intensity press works well to unbalance opposition. However, there is an opportunity to counter their defensive structure and this was exploited by Mourinho and Pogba last season.
Ultimately, whether Man United can counter Tottenham Hotspur’s high-intensity press will be key to them winning the game.
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