Manchester United suffered their first defeat of the season last weekend at Huddersfield. However, the consensus among many supporters was that the loss was overdue following a string of uninspired performances. After sucking the life out of a fierce rivalry with Liverpool, Manchester United put in an equally sleep-inducing showing against Benfica – emerging victorious only due to a goalkeeping error. These matches foreshadowed the loss to Huddersfield, which inevitably raised questions about Manchester United’s pedigree.
Tottenham match to determine Manchester United identity
Tottenham Hotspur visit Old Trafford this weekend, coming off two very strong performances against Real Madrid and Liverpool. Spurs now sit level with the Red Devils in the table and will look to break up the Manchester dominance atop the Premier League. Jose Mourinho’s approach, tactics, and execution against Tottenham will likely determine Manchester United’s identity for the remainder of the season.
Benefactors of a preferable schedule
While Manchester United sit second, there are some who believe that is strictly due to a relatively easy schedule. Through nine matches, Liverpool is the only top 6 team to come up against the Red Devils. Each of the other eight opponents currently sits tenth or lower in the league table.
This favourable start to the season played right into Manchester United’s hands. It allowed the majority of United’s attacking players to start the season dominating possession. This resulted in newcomers Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matic integrating smoothly into the first team and developing an understanding with their teammates.
The results indicated a resurgent Manchester United. Sixteen goals for and just two against through the opening fives matches showed a team that supporters haven’t seen since Sir Alex Ferguson. However, fixture congestion and a string of injuries have slowed Manchester United’s pace.
While the attackers were thriving, Manchester United was also comfortably keeping clean sheets. Jose Mourinho is a firm believer that success begins on the defensive side of the ball. He will not hesitate to sacrifice some offensive ability to increase his team’s likelihood of getting at least a point.
Mourinho, however, may have gone too far in this regard against Liverpool. Ashley Young made an unusual start at right wing, presumably as defensive reinforcements against Liverpool’s counter-attack. Matteo Darmian was also among the starting 11 against the Reds. What the Italian full-back lacks in offensive ability, he makes up for in defensive consistency – a trait Mourinho values highly.
Yet these defensive alterations created a disjointed attacking trio of Anthony Martial, Romelu Lukaku, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Martial frequently found himself isolated without support on the left wing. He attempted just three dribbles all match and was substituted in the 65th minute. Mkhitaryan fared no better. He was removed two minutes prior to Martial after once again failing to impose himself on a match. Lukaku would have been the most disappointed of the front three. Over 90 minutes, the Belgian managed just 22 touches. The majority of which came near halfway in an attempt to hold the ball up.
Mourinho did receive some plaudits for managing a point at Anfield. Yet the following performances at Benfica and Huddersfield were cause for concern. The Red Devils were lucky to escape Lisbon with a win. They were outperformed and fully deserved the loss at Huddersfield. Injuries have evidently taken their toll on Mourinho’s tactics. However, as Manchester United enter a challenging end to 2017 the question is begging to be asked: are Manchester United an offensive juggernaut, or impenetrable defensively?
Tottenham visit Old Trafford
Spurs coming to Old Trafford poses an intriguing challenge for Manchester United. They are an extremely versatile team capable of performing equally with either three or four defenders. Additionally, they have plenty of speed to counter-attack teams who are reckless in the attack, as well as talented creators ready to break down the most compact defences.
Tottenham’s array of possible lineups poses Mourinho with an interesting challenge. Old Trafford despises negative football and the home crowd will want to see Manchester United push the tempo. Yet numerous injuries will surely tempt Mourinho to play conservative and protect his back four – which will disappoint the supporters.
Mourinho’s decisions, whether risk-taking or safe, are always subject to debate. However, the Portuguese manager has always gone about his business in the manner he believes to be best. Therefore, when Tottenham come to town Sunday, his team will represent the setup he deems most likely to succeed. Sunday’s gameplan is sure to indicate what type of team Manchester United will be during the crucial moments of their campaign.
Main Photo: Manchester United’s Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku (L) and Manchester United’s French striker Anthony Martial are pictured during the English Premier League football match between Manchester United and West Ham United at Old Trafford in Manchester, north-west England, on August 13, 2017. (Photo credit OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images)