Tactics Column: How and why Man Utd suffered defeat to Tottenham

After the performance and result at Brighton, Manchester United fans were looking for a reaction as a minimum improvement in this game and they got that, despite the fact that the result was still another disappointment. In the aftermath, the story for many has been about the manager’s reaction and whether he has a long-term, (or even medium-term), future at the club but that should not disguise the fact that this was a schizophrenic performance; there were bad points but good points as well. It was not all doom and gloom.

This was my first game of the season after a holiday with the family so my first chance to see things live and despite the result and scoreline, coming away from the ground it didn’t feel that things are as bad as one would imagine from the recent press the manager and side have been receiving. There are issues to consider, however.


Jose made wholesale changes for this game, both in personnel and tactically. Was this a three or a five at the back strategy? On balance a three with Herrera as one of the three. He wasn’t a man-marker, but he was often close to Kane. That left Jones and Smalling as the other two players holding their positions. Valencia and Shaw played as wing-backs and as a consequence they recorded very high average positions, (in the first half their average position was actually in the Tottenham half). Matic sat as the holding player but dropped into the back three if Herrera followed Kane away from goal. Fred and Pogba sat higher but stayed narrow so that the central midfield three took up a traditional midfield three shape. At the front, Lingard partnered Lukaku in a big man little man two. Overall the shape was roughly 3-3-2-2, some have called this a 3-3-3-1. That’s a moot point depends on your view of Lingard’s role and positioning but the interesting issues come out of how United used this.

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Before we look at those issues we should ask why Jose made these changes, especially as some in the press have suggested he got it wrong. Many had anticipated a three-man central defensive strategy as a reaction to our woeful central defensive display at Brighton. There may be something in that but this was in principle a reasonable reorganisation to address Spurs early season tactical approach and Jose did employ a three-man defence against Spurs at Old Trafford last season whilst more recently experimenting with it in pre-season.

The twist was Herrera as one of the three defenders of course. He is perhaps our best man marker so that has some logic about it if he was employed to stay close to Kane but that is high risk with only two other defenders and is not really what we saw here. Jose has used Herrera as a dedicated marker in the past, notably against Eden Hazard and Chelsea last year. Hazard traditionally plays deeper than Kane and then Herrera was an additional defender to the four rather than one of the three. More of that anon. If Herrera usually picked up Kane this appeared to be as much about Kane’s positioning in relation to him as Herrera deliberately following him, but this left Jones and Smalling to pick up Spurs other attacking players who are usually deeper behind Kane. As identified midfield went man for man which made the wide areas the key battleground. In the first half United won that battle and were on top; in the second Spurs won that battle and were on top, the key difference in terms of the result is that Spurs scored when they were on top, United didn’t After Spurs scored United seem to lose energy and belief, which all meant that Tottenham won.

First half-pressing and attacking intent

In the first half especially United were very positive and aggressive. They pressed Tottenham from the start in high areas; most of the time Lukaku tended to maintain a central position whilst Lingard buzzed around him and led the press. If that press went to the United left support came from Fred and often Shaw who adopted a very aggressive approach, both in respect of field position and intent. If the press was to the right support was by Pogba and Valencia. This meant that Lingard, who had a strong first half was often ahead of Lukaku. All this worked well. Lingard looked sharp and confident and his pace troubled Spurs and although there are a couple of issues with United’s use of this tactic Spurs gave the ball away more times in their own half in the first 45 minutes than any other side this season.

Jose practised this general strategy with other personnel on tour. A two-man central pair is not really his thing and one assumed when he did this, notably against Real Madrid in the States that it was an attempt to develop a way of playing when he does not have a big target man because of injury, (the situation which undermined United in last year’s FA Cup final). The use of it with Lukaku suggests it’s something he might be looking to use more generally. As well as United did in the first half, and accepting that you have to score of course two issues stood out.

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Firstly, United seemed to lack composure when their press was successful. On winning the ball in high areas they often simply lost it again far too quickly. In truth, the energy and dynamic of the press meant that when they won the ball they were out of shape. This strategy to work well will require increased spatial discipline so that the team is able to make the most of those transition moments quickly. Fred and Pogba can be more fluid but within limits. This brings us to the second issue relating to this strategy. Lukaku’s contribution to the build-up play needs to be of a consistently higher standard. In pre-season Jose used Sanchez with Mata to arguably greater effect when trying this strategy. Jose is always going to want to use at least one big central striker if he can. That means Lukaku and so his hold up and linking play with Lingard especially when he comes deeper and Lingard runs beyond him needs to improve.

What happens if the opponent beats the press

The pressing meant that for a large part of the first half United pushed Spurs back. Spurs struggled to get out of their half or to string more than three or four passes together. United created chances but unfortunately did not take any of them. If they had scored in this period this could have been a different match. But they didn’t.

Spurs did have their moments however and we need to look at what happened when they beat the United press because when they did they looked dangerous. Getting the balance right between knowing when to press and when to form up in a lower defensive block is important, but what is equally important is knowing how far to sit off, so effectively how much space to surrender, United did not get that right in this game.

Spurs attacking line this season has tended to be Kane up front supported by two narrow support players behind him. So Kane tends to be highest but here he often dropped deeper. That meant that Alli and Lucas Moura were the highest attackers, but especially in the first half not that high. Smalling who had a reasonable game, and Jones, didn’t really want to step out and engage with these two and so tended to lose them. They were often not tight enough in key moments and surrendered too much space. This was noticeable on restarts, (which in the first half only meant throw-ins); Spurs often had too much space in these situations. United struggled with the delivery from wide areas throughout. That was the case at Brighton too albeit with different personnel, but this is worrying.

How and why did it change?

Having said all this United were on top for most of the first half so how and why did it change? It actually changed earlier than many people have realised. After about 35 minutes Spurs pushed the Delle Ali and Moura into wider areas with Eriksen and Dembele looking to feed them with earlier passes. Perhaps Pochettino had identified that with United’s wingbacks pushing forward to support the press and then pushing on to provide attacking width space was behind these wingbacks in the wide areas. It wasn’t that Ali and Lucas Moura played higher initially, just wider. This change could have provoked one or two responses; it could have pushed the wingbacks back or pulled the centre-backs apart. In the end, it pushed the wingbacks back but by that time United were 0-2 down. At first, it pulled the centre-backs apart.

The first goal came from a corner with the second coming from a delivery from the Spurs right, in other words, the space behind Shaw and on other occasions when Spurs exploited the space behind Valencia. With a two-goal deficit, Mourinho chose to abandon the Herrera experiment and went to a flat back four with United’s shape now resembling something closer to a 4-3-3.

Defensive frailty, belief and leadership

You can expect a side that concedes two in double quick time to stutter for a few minutes but you want to see them regroup and respond. United actually never really responded with any conviction which is all the more galling given that the first half performance represented a massive improvement on the display at Brighton. Why?

Mourinho tried to change things abandoning the back three and then changing personnel but United never again pressed with the same sense of intensity and with the wide defensive players now playing less cautiously United generally looked to have lost half a yard of pace. They did have chances and with more clinical finishing could have got back into the game but that loss of half a yard can be enough to make all the difference in a game like this. This could, of course, have been all about fitness levels rather than a response to the setback. United pressed furiously in the first half; did they burn themselves out a little as well? This is a possibility given that many of these players were late back to pre-season, some are returning from injury and as a consequence might not yet be up to speed. Fred, who had looked good in the first half notably wilted later in the game as watching on TV I observed he seemed to do at Brighton. Perhaps he will need some time to adapt to the pace of the Premier League.

More worrying is a lack of leadership on the pitch. Jose Mourinho, fought his corner in the press conference post-match, but where was the fight on the pitch? United have seemed to lack both defensive leadership and resolve for quite some time now, but do we have the type of midfield player who won’t take setbacks lying down, do we have the type of defender who can instruct those around him at moments of pressure? That just does not appear to be there in this group of players and this is another concern. Also of concern is that we now find ourselves in a situation where the manager has made it known that he wanted defensive reinforcement and the club has made it known that he can’t have any. That sends a message to the defenders already at the club and in view of this, it isn’t surprising they appear to lack self-confidence at the moment? Whose fault is that, manager or those above him, or both?

Managerial state of mind

Whatever judgements senior club officials or owners make in football terms the manager sets the tone and this is where Mourinho needs to look at the situation. Pre-season and in the first few weeks, everything about the club has seemed flat. This, of course, may not be the case inside the club, but that is the mood, which intentionally or not is being projected. The press corp have noticed that and for many Jose is now a dead man walking.

He isn’t popular with many of them anyway and he never will be for some, (and some fans). But Jose has to take a lead in changing the mood if for no other reason than to lift the players and give them a renewed sense of self-belief and resolve.  His post-match press conference performance can be seen one of either two ways; a rant of someone who has lost it or a rallying cry to both players and fans.

This performance and the balance of the match did not feel like a 0-3 defeat. Clearly, that was the result but statistics tell a more nuanced story: Possession 57%/43% to United, shots United 23 with 5 on target, Spurs 9 with 5 on target. The scoreline, of course, remains the key statistic, but United weren’t all bad here.

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