Last week, Manchester United put in arguably their worst performance since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. With the pressure mounting on Jose Mourinho and the players, fellow title challengers Tottenham arrive at Old Trafford. A defeat here could force the board to act and give up on the Jose Mourinho era. A win could shut up all the dissenters. Let’s have a look at how this game might pan out.
Predicted starting eleven
Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof had a torrid time down at the Amex. Between them they made 2 tackles, neither of them made an interception and Bailly had 2 unsuccessful touches (a statistically ‘bad touch’). On Monday Night Football, Gary Neville said he thought Jose Mourinho may switch to a back three as he had played on the US Tour. Not only that, Mourinho played with a back three in the same fixture last year to tactically match Spurs. Bailly and Lindelof clearly need the support, so that might be the best move for United.
So who will be in the back three? With Marcos Rojo still out, Chris Smalling is likely to be chosen over Phil Jones. Looking at it analytically, he has the better stats from last season. Smalling made 1.4 tackles, 2.2 interceptions, 1 block and 5.5 clearances a game, beating Jones on every single stat. He also has some unquantifiable benefits appearing to be the closest thing the backline has to a leader. He also didn’t go to Russia in the summer so he should be fresh and ready to play.
With a switch to a back three, United will need to find a partner for Romelu Lukaku up front. Sanchez is still doubtful after his training injury and both Martial and Rashford have performed poorly so far this season.
This leaves Jesse Lingard as the only viable option. He had a very impressive World Cup and performed well in this role last season, most notably away against Arsenal and Watford where he combined well with Lukaku. It will be interesting to see how he performs.
Predicted XI: De Gea, Valencia, Bailly, Smalling, Lindelof, Shaw, Matic, Fred, Pogba, Lingard, Lukaku
Key tactical battle
Undoubtedly, the midfield will be the key battleground in this fixture. Spurs will want to control possession and create attacks through Alli and Eriksen. Without the ball they will press United quickly, meaning whoever is on the ball needs to be calm under pressure.
Enter Nemanja Matic. He returned to training this week and will probably be restored to the starting eleven. Pereira is unlucky to be dropped but was always going to be replaced when the Serbian was fit.
Pereira and Matic’s play styles are very similar and their offensive and defensive stats are alike. However, Matic brings added experience and leadership that was missed from the back half of United’s team on Sunday, which will be very important in a game of this magnitude.
Spurs are far more comfortable with the ball than Brighton. In the fixture last season, United actually allowed Spurs to have most of the possession and played on the counter-attack. This would mean that Matic, Pogba and Fred will need to press, harry and be strong in the tackle.
In the previous fixture, this was far from the case. Fred failed to make a tackle and registered 1 interception while Pogba failed to make an interception and made 1 tackle. Between them, they made a huge 9 fouls, helping Brighton kill the pace of the game. If Fred and Pogba aren’t more solid, Spurs will likely run all over United’s midfield and rush towards the Red’s weak defence.
But history is on their side. United have won 81% of the games between these sides at Old Trafford. However, Spurs’ two wins in the Premier League at Old Trafford have come in the last six years, in the 12/13 and 13/14 seasons, so the tide may be turning.
Jose Mourinho has an impressive record against Pochettino, winning 11 of his 15 games against the Argentinian. He beat him in this fixture last season as well as the FA Cup Semi final when United came back from a goal down.
However, if United play like they did in the first two games of the season, they are doomed to defeat. Spurs are a much better side than both Leicester and Brighton and after watching United be so poor in the first two games, they will smell blood.
Mourinho does know how to beat Pochettino at Spurs and making the tweak to a back three might help strengthen United in defence, midfield and attack. It’s also likely they’ll drop back and play on the counter, which might suit them more than keeping the ball for ninety minutes.
But the performances so far have been so poor that victory looks unlikely. At the very least, United need to put in a battling performance that shows they still have fight. The fact that it’s come to that in a home game against is very damning. If United do lose, this could be the beginning of the end for Jose Mourinho. This could be his last chance saloon.