Manchester United completed another comeback away from home to see off Tottenham Hotspur to cement their position in 2nd place in the Premier League.
This article will provide a tactical analysis of the encounter which saw United dominate the second half and score three goals to complete yet another comeback for United this season.
United expose Spurs’ man-oriented pressing
When United had deep possession, Tottenham’s man-orientation was evident from the beginning. This was a strategy which looked to pressure United’s double pivot of Fred and Scott McTominay in order to prevent them from simple reception.
United have shown they are susceptible to central, man-oriented pressure in recent weeks, specifically in the two matches against AC Milan, largely due to the lack of movement and dynamism in build-up which makes it easier for the opposition to press successfully.
Therefore, the rationale behind Jose Mourinho’s decision to push two of his central midfielders forward to engage the double pivot may have been down to fact that both McTominay and Fred have shown they can be susceptible to pressure from behind when receiving possession.
However, much like when Mourinho opted for this approach against Chelsea in attempt to prevent progression through the double pivot of Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic, this opened up significant space between the lines which enhanced United’s ball progression.
This was exacerbated when United’s double pivot dropped extremely deep to support build-up, as the distances between Spurs’ units increased, consequently making them less vertically compact and therefore easier to play through due to the open space.
United took advantage of the space between the lines when their forwards dropped deep to receive possession from one of the centre-backs.
The centre-back in possession typically had time and space on the ball because Harry Kane looked to prevent sideways passing between the two centre-backs, often arching his runs in attempt to force the player in possession to make a decision.
The time and space afforded facilitated greater ball progression into the players dropping into the space, which highlights the vulnerability of the defensive team when no pressure is applied to the ball carrier and space is afforded.
Spurs then relied on their defenders stepping out of defence to engage the receiver, however, this was ineffective, as the attacker always has the initiative when the defender’s movement solely depends on the movement of the attacker.
This often results in the defender being a split second off the pace, as the attacker can always initiate the original movement, which allows for greater momentum.
This allowed the likes of Edinson Cavani and Bruno Fernandes to receive possession without threatening pressure from behind, combine, and then switch the play to gain territory and attack further up the pitch, which consequently resulted in frequent progression into the final third and the build-up of pressure.
In the second half, Ole Gunnar Solskjær opted to move Paul Pogba, who started on the left, deeper, and more central, when United had deep possession.
This seemed to be an attempt to get the Frenchman on the ball as much as possible, given his excellent technical security in possession. The aim behind the alteration seemed to be to move possession into Pogba in central areas, so he could have a greater influence on the match, considering the half-time score line.
The alteration was extremely effective because it gave Tottenham a predicament when pressing.
Due to Pogba’s deep positioning, Tottenham full-back Serge Aurier could not afford to step out and mark the Frenchman, due to the vacated space behind, which United full-back Luke Shaw was now operating in as a result of Pogba’s deeper position.
As a result, Spurs were forced to relent their man-oriented approach in order to protect the space between the lines, dropping one of their central midfielders back, where Fernandes and Pogba were both operating.
Consequently, this allowed simple progression out of first phase for United because of the overload they had created. This allowed United to frequently progress play which ultimately facilitated sustained attacks, which prevented Tottenham from creating chances consistently.
However, although it was largely situational, Spurs did sometimes commit to man-orientation on the pivot in the second half, which ultimately created more problems.
This essentially left Pogba to receive without pressure between the lines, turn and progress the ball further in order to facilitate a greater amount of attacks.
Aggression of United’s defenders
Typically, United press in a 4231 structure which can manifest itself in a 442 dependent on the positioning of Bruno Fernandes. The press becomes man-oriented when the ball is moved to the opposition full-back.
The role of the ball sided centre-back in this structure is to drift across to provide cover and support the ball side, whilst also pressurising their respective man if they receive possession.
However, the aggressiveness of Victor Lindelöf when United pressed on Spurs’ right was significant, and was clearly a slight adaptation to the pressing structure in attempt to prevent Harry Kane from turning in possession.
Kane has shown his ability to orchestrate play from deep on numerous occasions this season, and therefore it was important to be aggressive and force difficult reception in order to prevent the Spurs forward from turning and finding a runner.
So the primary objective seemed to be for Lindelof to simply cause difficult reception by applying aggressive pressure when he received possession around the half-way line.
Then, the second objective seemed to be force a mistake or a turnover where ever possible.
This worked well, as it prevented Kane from having a great impact on the game, and also nullified his attacking relationship with Son Heung-Min.
United also seemed to be more aggressive in preventing an effective counter attack.
This can manifested by the starting position of the deepest line immediately after losing possession, i.e., the higher up the line, the more space you concede behind is more aggressive, and the deeper the line, the less space you concede behind, the more passive it is.
Typically, the aggressiveness of United’s centre-backs this season has been largely dependent on the game state. For example, when chasing a goal, so either behind or level late on, United’s centre-backs begin higher in attempt to sustain attacks.
However, the aggressiveness of United’s centre-backs in this situation was evident from the off yesterday.
Again, this seemed to an attempt to prevent Kane from having time and space to exploit United’s lack of vertical coverage of the pitch (natural when defensive line steps up to support attacks).
This allowed for sustained attacks and the build up of pressure which ultimately led to United’s goals, as they built ahead of steam in the second half by continuing attacks and preventing Spurs from transitioning with full effect.
Devastating combination play
Quite often this season, and throughout Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s reign at the club, United have lacked tempo and dynamism when attacking teams who sit deep and prioritise blocking crucial space.
However, this was not the case against Tottenham, as the short, sharp combination play stood out, specifically in the second half.
The element that was perhaps the most impressive was the confidence in the players to pass to teammates who were under pressure from an opponent.
Often, United are reluctant to play forward to players who seem to be marked, or are under pressure from an opponent, with the risk of losing possession.
The extra trust and confidence was manifested greatly by the performance of Edinson Cavani.
However, on Sunday, there seemed to be a greater belief in United’s passing when teammates were being pressured, which may have been down to the extra technical quality on the pitch.
The Uruguayan delivered arguably his best performance in a Manchester United shirt, and this was largely down to his impressive performance with his back to goal, in addition to his world class box movement, which created United’s first goal.
As aforementioned, United often looked towards Cavani in build up as a focal point. He was able to bring others into play quickly after receiving, which allowed United to turn Spurs over on numerous occasions.
The sharp combination play was impressive throughout the second half, allowed United to keep possession in tight areas, and essentially gave them a route back into the game.
In summation, Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s men were able to exploit the space between the lines, created by Tottenham’s man-oriented pressing in the first half. The aggressiveness of the centre-backs caused for sustained attacks and prevented Harry Kane from having an influence on the counter attack. The short, sharp combination play, specifically in the final third, allowed United to carve through Spurs with ease, which rounded off a superb away performance and victory.