A crucial battle between the traditional ‘top 6’ in the Premier League takes place on Sunday, with Manchester United facing off against Tottenham Hotspur.

 Spurs come off with a 1-1 draw against Newcastle, with a penalty from Callum Wilson in the dying moments of the game denying them the 3 points. They sit 7th in the table after losing to 1-0 Everton, from a Dominic Calvert-Lewin goal and beating Southampton 5-2 with a quadruple from Heung-Min Son. 

Manchester United meanwhile sit in 14th place after playing two games in the league, losing 3-1 to Crystal Palace and sneaking a 3-2 win against Brighton with a goal after full-time for Bruno Fernandes. 

The last time these two sides faced off was in the 2019/20 Premier League season, where they drew 1-1 in June, where Steven Bergwijn and Fernandes took a goal each and Manchester United won 2-1 in December 2019, where Marcus Rashford scored a brace and Dele Alli scored for the Spurs.

This tactical analysis will look at how both Ole Gunnar Solskjær and José Mourinho might set up and the tactics that they might employ in this game. This analysis will also look at both sides’ previous games and where they should learn from there.

Expected Lineup

Premier League 2020/21 - Manchester United vs Tottenham Hotspur - tactical preview tactics
Expected Lineup

Manchester United (Red): 4-2-3-1

I expect David De Gea to start in goal as always. The centre-back pairing should be Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelöf unless Solksjær decides to start Eric Bailly. At right-back, Aaron Wan-Bissaka should start with Luke Shaw as his counter-part on the left.

The double-pivot should consist of Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic, with Scott McTominay will have a chance to have a cameo. The attacking midfielder should be Bruno Fernandes who has put in great performances in front of the duo. One of Pogba and Fernandes could be removed to accommodate for Donny Van De Beek from Ajax, in which case, the remaining midfielder drops back.

Finally, in the attack, Mason Greenwood should start at right-wing, with Marcus Rashford on the left. Anthony Martial, who has been poor since the beginning of 20/21, will start at striker and hopefully, show his worth. 

Tottenham Hotspur (Blue): 4-2-3-1

Captain Hugo Lloris should start in between the sticks. In front of him, Eric Dier should play alongside Davinson Sanchez in central defence. Matt Doherty from Wolves should play at right-back while Ben Davies should play at left-back. New signing Sergio Reguilon might get a few minutes in this game as well.

The double-pivot that has worked well for Mourinho’s Tottenham Hotspur is with Pierre-Emile Højberg and Harry Winks. There is a possibility that Tanguy Ndombele replaces either midfielder as well. In attacking midfield, there is a toss-up between Dele Alli and Giovanni Lo Celso. I believe that Alli should start this game considering that he didn’t have any game time against Newcastle. 

In attack, Harry Kane should start as the lone striker, with Lucas Moura on the right-wing. Considering that Son is injured, Steven Bergwijn should start at left-wing. Erik Lamela could start in that particular position as well. 

How will Manchester United Play

In general, due to the versatility of the forwards, the four attacking players switch around a lot to get into good goalscoring or chance creating positions. This is to facilitate quick passes between the players as they approach the opposition’s goal. The players would switch into a 3-3-1-3 like Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds at times when attacking as we can see below:

Premier League 2020/21 - Manchester United vs Tottenham Hotspur - tactical preview tactics
United’s attacking formation

Matic, as the defensively stronger midfielder, drops back as a centre-back while Lindelof and Maguire move deeper into the wings to form a three-at-the-back situation. Pogba’s role is to be the distributor but was something he did not do well with his passing accuracy of 68%. Shaw and Wan-Bissaka would get into attacking positions to link-up with the winger. This formed the midfield line of three. Fernandes would act as the attacking pivot in midfield to facilitate passes from the midfield three to the attacking three.

The pace of the United attackers means that they can exploit high and slower lines with ease, and considering that Doherty pushes up very high to attack, Rashford should be able to exploit the space left behind him. This should be the area where Manchester United should be looking to exploit as the pace of the interchanging forwards. For example, 42% of Everton’s attacks went through their left side, and they created many more chances than Spurs. 

Premier League 2020/21 - Manchester United vs Tottenham Hotspur - tactical preview tactics
Bruno’s creating the chance that led to Rashford’s goal

If Fernandes is able to play his defence-splitting passes past Tottenham’s defensive lines, Manchester United should have plentiful goalscoring opportunities. 

In defence, United have simply been poor this season, conceding five goals in their two games played so far. Considering that Spurs have quality attackers, Manchester United may have a lot of problems on hand. Against Brighton, the attacking four made little effort in counter-pressing or intercepting the ball to stop chance creation. So, players like Tariq Lamptey and Ben White could make passes that went straight to the midfielders with little interference. Considering the ball-playing ability of Spurs’ backline, Manchester United might be in trouble in winning the ball back in Spurs’ half. 

In their own half, Manchester United are marginally better. We can see an example of this below:

Premier League 2020/21 - Manchester United vs Tottenham Hotspur - tactical preview tactics
United’s lack of defensive awareness

This here is an example of Manchester United’s poor defence. There are three players on Leandro Trossard on the far-right and two players on Neal Maupay who is on the ball. Wan-Bissaka takes on Connolly. The number 20, Solly March, is free in this situation as he is not marked by a United player and his passing lane is left unmarked. Maupay finds March with ease but March hits the woodwork. While United left lucky in this situation, March got a goal in the supposedly last minute of the game. This was a mix of United’s poor backline and the modest defensive contributions from the attacking players. 

For Tottenham Hotspur, they have the intelligent Harry Kane who can move between the defensive lines much better than Brighton’s attackers and pacey wingers in Bergwijn, Lucas Moura and Erik Lamela. Mourinho’s side are good at counter-attacking, and will easily take advantage of this problem in the backline if United don’t improve their defence structure. 

How will Tottenham Hotspur play

Against Newcastle, Tottenham Hotspurs dominated the game with 65% possession of the ball and taking more shots, having more big chances, making more dribbles and making more passes. Considering that Newcastle plays a low block, Spurs would not use similar tactics against Manchester United. 

Against Southampton, Spurs contorted to a 4-3-3 with Tanguy Ndombele dropping back into a midfield three and Son, Kane and Moura forming a narrow front three. This was to penetrate the middle third from long balls from the centre-backs or diagonal passes from the full-backs. We can see this below:

Premier League 2020/21 - Manchester United vs Tottenham Hotspur - tactical preview tactics
Spurs attacking formation

There are some key observations to be made here. Firstly, Moura and Bergwijn drop into the half-spaces to overload the central spaces. Next, Alli drops back to form a midfield diamond. 

The role of the centre-backs and full-backs were to make through balls and advanced passes for the attacking three to latch on to. Considering that Doherty played as the wing-back in Wolverhampton Wanderers, he has the experience to bomb up forward in attack and to make diagonal runs and diagonal passes to the attackers. Sanchez and Dier have to play searching passes to the midfielders in the build-up. 

A great example of some of these ideas was implemented against Southampton. We can see these principles in practice below:

Premier League 2020/21 - Manchester United vs Tottenham Hotspur - tactical preview tactics
Davinson Sanchez distributing the ball

Here, Sanchez releases a pass into the path of Kane. Doherty is the online player providing width here as he remains an option to launch a run. This also pulls the opponent’s defenders away from the passing lane.

Premier League 2020/21 - Manchester United vs Tottenham Hotspur - tactical preview tactics
Spurs front three creating chances

Here, the three attackers are narrow and in good space to find themselves in attacking positions. Kane creates space with his body geometry and can find a pass to Son. Erik Lamela draws out Jack Stephens and Jan Bednarek, while Son only has to deal with Kyle Walker-Peters.

In defence, Spurs defend with a narrow 4-3-3. The shape is similar to what we saw above. This means that United can exploit the flanks with the attacking wing-backs in Shaw and Wan-Bissaka. The presence of Rashford on the left-flank means that Tottenham will need to focus their efforts on closing him down as Doherty generally pushes up high.

Conclusion

Both Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspurs are very good sides. United have problems in the defensive phase of their game while Tottenham miss Son, arguably their best player in the side. Spurs looked good against Chelsea in the EFL Cup, but it is to be seen whether they can remain energetic after playing in the Europa League as well.

My prediction? Manchester United 2 Tottenham Hotspurs 2. Both sides have great attacking players but are weak defensively like we saw above with United’s defensive positioning problems and Spurs’ weakness on the flanks. This could cause a goal-fest and would be enjoyable for the neutrals.