Manchester United will be glad to return home to Old Trafford for Saturday’s lunchtime contest against Tottenham Hotspur. The club just finished a run of four consecutive away matches and has not played host yet this month. Like most teams, United plays noticeably better at home, winning all four Premier League games at Old Trafford and keeping a clean sheet in each one. Continuing that impeccable record, though, will not be easy.
Spurs enter the match full of confidence, having earned a hard-fought draw with the European champions at the Bernabeu and then smashing Liverpool 4-1 on the weekend. The club’s eleven match unbeaten run ended on Wednesday after West Ham United roared back from a second-half deficit to bounce Spurs out of the Carabao Cup. Nonetheless, the Real Madrid and Liverpool results will have Mauricio Pochettino’s men fancying their chances to leave Manchester with at least a point.
Manchester United’s indifferent form since the international break has been well documented — as have José Mourinho’s blistering remarks toward his side after the Huddersfield Town debacle. The manager typically defends his players at all costs, preferring to heap any media attention onto himself instead. Last Saturday, though, he minced no words about his squad’s lack of effort and attitude. Mourinho will surely expect a battling response against Spurs.
The first step in that direction came on Tuesday in the Carabao Cup triumph over Swansea City. Featuring a heavily rotated and youthful side, United ran out deserved winners in an assured display against the struggling Swans. Yet, precisely because of that rotation, who knows how much carry-over there will be to the Spurs match?
Both Marcus Rashford and Ander Herrera were withdrawn midway through the second half in Wales, reportedly due to injury. Hopefully the substitutions were just precautionary, for the club can ill afford to lose any more players to the training table.
Guessing Mourinho’s starting eleven — or even his tactics — for the Spurs match is difficult for exactly that reason. United has endured a spate of injuries in the last month, leaving a threadbare midfield and error-prone defense. Paul Pogba still seems a ways off, although a few cryptic social media posts have buoyed supporters’ hopes that his return might come sooner than later. Marouane Fellaini remains a doubt, while Eric Bailly might be back just in time for Spurs.
Phil Jones, of all people, has provided the one bit of good news from the injury front. Everyone understandably feared the worst when he limped off at Huddersfield last weekend, but Jones has declared himself fit and available for selection. He seems to have shaken off his knock and should be back in the heart of United’s defense come Saturday.
And, boy, will they need him.
Harry Kane and company have been flying high of late and Mourinho will need all defensive hands on deck to slow down the rampant Spurs attack. Kane comes into the match fresh off his evisceration of Liverpool’s Dejan Lovren and already with a remarkable thirteen goals to his name this season.
Last night, in the aftermath of Tottenham’s loss to West Ham, Pochettino revealed that Kane may not be available with a hamstring injury. That would certainly be a relief for Manchester United, as the Spurs frontman looks unstoppable on current form.
Still, no matter what Pep Guardiola might think, Tottenham Hotspur is no one-man band. Pochettino possesses an abundance of young scoring options — Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen, to name just two — that makes it impossible to key the defense completely around shutting down Kane.
The Tottenham manager employs a tactically-fluid approach that often sees his team switch formations on the fly to best exploit that day’s opponent. He’s also not afraid to make unconventional changes to his starting eleven on a match-by-match basis. Last week, in Madrid, the Argentinian dusted off Fernando Llorente and partnered him up front with Harry Kane. He always has a tactical wrinkle in mind for big matches, so Mourinho and the United players must be ready for anything.
Under Pochettino, the club’s hallmark is an aggressive defense paired with a relatively direct attack. There aren’t many long balls pumped into the box, but Spurs waste no time in winning back the ball and playing incisive passes to the attacking front. Spurs will likely come flying out of the blocks on Saturday looking for an early goal to silence the Old Trafford faithful.
United will have precious little time on the ball, but should aim to take advantage of Tottenham’s aggression. Rashford, if fit, should use his speed to run into the open space behind the Spurs defensive line.
One other player to keep an eye on is Tottenham center-back Davinson Sanchez. Mourinho picked on the young Colombian defender in last May’s Europa League final, by directing his players to force all of Ajax’s buildup play to go through Sanchez. This simple tweak nullified much of Ajax’s threat going forward and, if Sanchez plays on Saturday, Mourinho might reprise these tactics.
No October match can be considered must-win. But, with Manchester City looking nigh unstoppable in the early going, United must stay close to their cross-town rivals or risk being left in the dust. A repeat of last season’s corresponding fixture — a 1-0 Mourinho special — would suit Manchester United just fine.