Alex Keble argues that Jose Mourinho's willingness to rebrand can inspire Spurs to victory at Old Trafford in the first real test of his new tenure.
When Jose Mourinho returns to Manchester United this week he should not be seeking to prove a point but rather to concede one. Jose’s Tottenham rebrand – and there’s always a rebrand – is about reconnecting with the aesthetic counter-attacking football of his Real Madrid and Chelsea teams; it's about humbly giving in to demands that he plays an expansive game following those tedious, congealed years in the Old Trafford dugout.
Mourinho knows he cannot park the bus on Wednesday and get away with it, not at the beginning of a project few Spurs fans actively support. The transition away from Mauricio Pochettino’s high pressing, high energy approach - or what’s left of it – will need to be gradual, if indeed Mourinho’s promise he won’t change the club’s tactics is just empty rhetoric. Certainly the busy Christmas period, with virtually no time at all on the training ground, is not the time to implement new ideas. We’ll have to wait until the New Year to find out whether Mourinho really has changed.
But the new manager might have chosen to attack United regardless. Mourinho is a pragmatist if nothing else, and the most pragmatic way to beat Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side this season is to go at them – to fight the mid-table players, not the badge. United are only dangerous when opponents hesitate, as Liverpool did in the 1-1 draw in October, but with such a listless central midfield are torn apart if confronted, as Jack Grealish showed in Aston Villa’s 2-2 draw on Sunday.
Villa ought to have won that match comfortably. Spurs, with Dele Alli on form, can turn similar territorial dominance into a statement win.
Mourinho’s formation has been consistent across his first three matches in charge, as has the tone of Spurs’ performances. Start poorly, pick up in the middle, end poorly; it’s a pattern that has seen ten scored and six conceded, a chaotic beginning reflecting a little more than just psychological brittleness inherited from the final few months of the Pochettino era.
Nobody saw Jose’s 3-2-5 coming, and yet the formation is classic Mourinho. Clearly demarcated into distinct defensive and attacking roles, the 3-2 at the back is formed by a fixed double-axis in midfield and the left-back tucking inside to make a back three. The front five is considerably more fluid as Serge Aurier gets up alongside four forwards given licence to roam. Mourinho has always tended to separate the pitch like this, instructing defensive players to rigidly hold their ground in order to allow the front players to attack freely.
Dele has most notably benefited from Mourinho’s lack of attacking direction, moving instinctively ahead of Harry Kane, but all five of the Spurs attackers are enjoying a mantra that sees the ball moved quickly into the final third. Heung-Min Son, Lucas Moura, Kane, and Dele are continually making runs on the shoulder of the last defender, a tactic that paid dividends for the first two goals against Bournemouth on Saturday.
Toby Alderweireld’s long passes should again feature at Old Trafford, where a strong United defence will only be tested should they be put under frequent pressure. Victor Lindelof and Brandon Williams won’t enjoy the constant backpedaling, while the combination play between Dele and Kane can hurt an often flat-footed Harry Maguire.
However, Spurs will only be able to exploit United’s frailties should they exert greater control of possession than they managed against Bournemouth, when Mourinho’s team selection left too few technicians on the pitch. Without Harry Winks or Christian Eriksen, and with Moussa Sissoko preferred to Lucas, Spurs took too many heavy touches or sideways passes, failing to set the rhythm required for the front players to flourish.
Mourinho won’t park the bus, but nevertheless Wednesday’s game will be an early test of just how tactically ambitious he is willing to be: playing Eriksen and Lucas would go against his risk-averse instincts, yet it would be the best way to win three points.
And controlling midfield is about more than creating intelligent attacking shapes. Without a metronome alongside Dier, Spurs are clumsy in the transition, conceding counter-attacking goals with alarming regularity so far under Mourinho.
The main reason for this is passivity creeping into their game, a hangover from the post-pressing endgame under Pochettino and a sign of ‘old emotions’, in the words of the new manager. Spurs aren’t compressing their shape high up the pitch to pen in the opponents, but they aren’t dropping decisively back either; working on the transition from attack to defence is Mourinho’s biggest job over the months ahead.
That problem gives United a foothold in Wednesday’s game. In an otherwise confusingly abject tactical setup, defined by a lack of purposeful movement across the pitch, Solskjaer’s United do at least look to counter-attack with speed down the flanks.
The Norwegian’s vague attempts to recapture the pace and youthful energy of the Sir Alex Ferguson days translates as meaningless football interjected with sudden bursts from Daniel James, Anthony Martial, and Marcus Rashford.
The latter two in particular can combine well on the outside of Tottenham’s back three, as West Ham, Olympiakos, and Bournemouth all managed with varying degrees of success. The 3-2-5 is light on the right flank when the ball is lost, a knock-on effect not just of Aurier’s high position but the lack of positional awareness in central midfield. Any combination of Dier, Winks, Eriksen, and Tanguy Ndombele in that double pivot is a little too sluggish to stamp out opposition counters.
Manchester United - 13/8 | Draw - 12/5 | Tottenham - 8/5
Prices via Sky Bet and correct as of 0930 GMT on 03/12/19
Rashford and Martial breaking ahead of Aurier could be a prominent feature, and yet stretching the pitch in this way should only further give Spurs an advantage. An elongated pitch means yet more space for United’s under-stocked midfield to cover; Andreas Pereira and Fred are repeatedly overwhelmed, and any scenario in which the two formations are fanned out will surely benefit Spurs’ quick vertical attacking methods and Dele in particular as he drops into the number ten space.
The gulf in quality between the two sets of players, and the two managers, is stark. The only way United can prevent Tottenham from winning is if Mourinho overreacts to his side’s sloppy concessions against Bournemouth with a defensive line-up reminiscent of his days in the opposite dugout. In every other scenario, United's weak midfield and static attack will be outthought by a rejuvenated Spurs.
Mourinho couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity, a better opponent, or a better venue to cast aside his ‘park-the-bus’ tag and reinvent himself as the progressive Tottenham manager who was unfairly caught up in the crisis at Old Trafford. Mourinho, a master of the rebrand, will surely take this opportunity to go for the throat.
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