Manchester United came out on top against Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs side on Sunday, senior writer Sam Blitz analyses the match at Wembley to find out how the result panned out the way it did.
Sunday’s clash between Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United at Wembley Stadium saw two sides come together with very different targets for the second half of the Premier League campaign.
Mauricio Pochettino’s men fell nine points behind league leaders Liverpool in the title race following yesterday’s fixtures, while the Red Devils were playing catch-up in the hunt for Champions League football next season under new boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
However, Marcus Rashford’s goal just before half-time was enough to give United victory at Wembley to not only bring his side right back into the race for a top-four finish, but also severely dent Tottenham’s title challenge.
We take a look at the factors determining Sunday’s surprise result as Tottenham’s woes with regards to squad depth are further highlighted in defeat, while the Red Devils continue to develop under Solskjaer.
Midfield Missing in End to End Encounter
The match had an excellent tempo throughout the game, as both sides exemplified their respective attacking qualities on the Wembley turf. However, the main reason for the quickness in play between the two sides was down to the deficiencies of both team’s midfield displays on the day.
Spurs lined up in a diamond formation with Moussa Sissoko, Harry Winks and Christian Eriksen playing behind a more attacking central triumvirate of Dele Alli, Son Heung-Min and Harry Kane. Yet while this combination between midfield and attack is devastating going forward, none of the midfielders can really be deemed as defensively minded.
The deepest man in the Spurs midfield was 22-year old Winks, a player who is not necessarily comfortable as a defensive midfielder but has proved against the so-called lesser teams that he can operate in his pivot role. However, his opposite man on Sunday was Paul Pogba, a man rejuvenated in form under Manchester United’s new interim boss, and the Frenchman’s performance created a mismatch in midfield against the much smaller and inferiorly-talented Winks.
And Spurs’ instability in midfield – caused by a lack of balance between attack and defence in the middle of the park – was worsened by the premature departure of Sissoko due to injury. This forced Pochettino to reshuffle the pack as attacker Erik Lamela came on in the midfielder’s place, with the winger taking up a position on the right-hand side of a newly thought-out 4-2-3-1 formation, with Son Heung-Min on the opposite wing.
This meant that Eriksen was placed in a deeper role alongside Winks in a midfield two, and while that gave the Dane freedom to dictate chances from deep when Spurs were in possession, the 26-year old’s lack of defensive nature meant that the influential Pogba was given even more space to damage the Tottenham defence.
This can be seen in United’s winning goal, as Eriksen’s lack of experience as a holding midfielder was clear to see as Pogba was given the time and space in the middle of the park to pick out Rashford with a superb run and finish to give Solksjear’s side the lead. The World Cup-winning Frenchman could have added to United’s lead early in the second half, as the 25-year old strode through Spurs’ midfield with ease to force Hugo Lloris into a finger-tipping save in the 59th minute.
Perhaps, considering Pogba’s easy control of the match against an imbalanced Tottenham midfield, Pochettino would have been better off replacing Sissoko with Oliver Skipp, a more naturally defensive midfielder who has been given his opportunity to showcase his raw talent by his manager in recent weeks.
Despite keeping a clean sheet for a second consecutive league game in a row, United also struggled in midfield at Wembley. While the Red Devils put out a more balanced midfield combination compared to Spurs in Pogba, Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matic, the trio were frequently dragged out of position by Tottenham’s attacking players.
The fact that Tottenham’s star player Harry Kane occasionally dropped into midfield with Alli, Son and, in certain cases, Winks running in behind from midfield meant that Matic and Herrera were unsure and indecisive with regards to who they should pick up, and Tottenham created many chances to score from these movements in attack – particularly in the second-half.
United’s saviour on the day, however, was goalkeeper David De Gea who made eleven saves underneath the Wembley arch to earn his side three important points in the race for the top four.
The midfield battle was, therefore, rather ambiguous yet Tottenham’s lack of a defensively minded midfielder proved costlier than Matic and Herrara’s inability to track runners.
Tottenham are out of the title race
The result means Tottenham remain nine points adrift of Liverpool at the top of the table and are now beginning to look over their shoulders as London rivals Chelsea now stand a point behind Pochettino’s team, with Arsenal and Solskjaer’s United a further five behind.
And the overall analysis from the game reveals that Tottenham cannot win the Premier League this season, nor potentially even mount a significant challenge with their current roster of players.
Spurs’ difficulties with regards to squad depth are exemplified by the fact that Pochettino could only rely on 33-year old striker Fernando Llorente as a second-half substitute capable of changing the game. The Spaniard was making only his sixth league appearance of the season, all of which have come from the substitute bench and the former Swansea striker has yet to score in any of the 36 minutes he has been entrusted with in this current Premier League campaign.
Tottenham and Pochettino could have opted to boost their strength in depth over the summer, but opted not to make any new purchases during the pre-season transfer window because of their limited transfer budget.
And the Tottenham head coach revealed last week that there is little money to spend in January, and that the club will need to sell some of their current crop players before they can even start to bring anyone in.
Overall, Tottenham’s modest transfer budget has impeded their chances of Premier League glory and the club simply cannot compete at the top with Manchester City and Liverpool – who have both proven in recent years that significant investment is needed in order to revolutionize a top-four team into serious title challengers.
Solskjaer adding another win to CV to stake claim for permanent role
Tottenham’s repeated inability to mount a serious effort for the Premier League crown over the past three season suggests that Pochettino might have taken this Tottenham side as far as it can go. Furthermore, the work that the Argentinian manager has done to revolutionise this Tottenham side into the best their fans have seen in the Premier League era has not been reciprocated by any significant financial backing in the market by owner Daniel Levy.
Therefore, speculation linking Pochettino to a summer move to Manchester United and Real Madrid – two of the richest clubs in the world – will worry the Spurs hierarchy, but an approach by the Red Devils may be unlikely should Ole Gunnar Solskjaer keep up United’s good form in his interim role.
Victory on Sunday meant that the Norwegian has become the first Manchester United manager to win his first six games in charge in all competitions, bettering the likes of Jose Mourinho, Louis van Gaal and even Sir Alex Ferguson in their opening record as Red Devils boss.
While the majority of Solskjaer’s opening six fixtures can be seen as relatively simple fixtures (home victories over Bournemouth, Huddersfield and Reading along with trips to Cardiff and Newcastle), United’s interim boss displayed a tactical nous against Spurs to really stake a claim for him to earn the manager’s role on a permanent basis.
A move which went against the pre-match predictions, Solskjaer played Jesse Lingard in a central role in United’s front three, with the England international flanked by Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial. This move not only meant that Lingard was able to put pressure on Harry Winks and force the young midfielder into errors, but also allowed Rashford to take on and exploit any weaknesses in 31-year old Jan Vertonghen in the left centre-back role.
Winks was caught in possession more times (3) than any Tottenham player on Sunday’s pitch and was hauled off with ten minutes to play, while Rashford burst away from Verthongen to score the winning goal at a crucial time for United and their manager during his early reign as head coach.
There will be bigger and more difficult tests to come for the Red Devils’ interim boss, with games against Liverpool, Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City in late February and early March, but Solskjaer has certainly shown that he has what it takes to be considered as United’s permanent replacement for Jose Mourinho.