Billed as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s biggest test to date as Manchester United’s interim manager, after some so called easy games, came at Wembley on Sunday afternoon and although it ended up a test of sorts it wasnt perhaps the sternest he had been expecting.
Games against Cardiff City, Huddersfield Town, Bournemouth and away at Newcastle United had all ended with United winning all four games scoring 14 goals and conceding just the 3 and chuck in a 2-0 win in the FA Cup against Reading at Old Trafford and Solskjaer’s reign had started better than he could have imagined and with what seems a reinvigorated group of players the win on Sunday means it continues.
Mauricio Pochettino likes a diamond, we know that and it was no surprise to see him deploy it again on Sunday. Dele Alli will always be at the tip with the powerful yet somewhat cumbersome Moussa Sissoko on the right hand side, Christian Eriksen on the left and due to Eric Dier still out injured Harry Winks started in the screening role at the base. Diamonds can be complicated and need excellent discipline and bravery in the players positioning especially in attack to defensive transitions and this game was no different.
A diamond midfield is of course variation of a 4-4-2 but with no natural width. Given that Sissoko and Eriksen arent wingers and given Spurs have limited natural wide men at the club this becomes a natural set up for Pocchettino in many ways. Call it what you want some may say its a 4-3-1-2 and it can be interpreted that way but this depends on the the number 9 position (Dele Alli) floating around in midfield in positions ready to receive and turn with the ball to feed the two front men and not dropping in to make a four man midfield.
I thought Son’s defensive role in the game was interesting. He didnt really look to be interested in pressing Luke Shaw down the Spurs right hand side instead leaving that to Spurs right back Kieron Trippier and himself concentrated on pressing United’s central defenders with Harry Kane as Spurs looked to use their usual high intense pressing strategy. Not unusual perhaps but ‘Sonny’s’ game is all about pressing in the wide areas as well as up top.
Sissoko’s presence around United’s Paul Pogba meant the latters ability to get on the ball and execute those ranging passes were restricted, well for the first half at least until Sissoko picked up an injury just before half time and Pogba’s freedom thereafter ended up being the difference come full time. Alli kept a (sort of) eye on Nemanja Matic as did Eriksen on Ander Herrera and this meant United’s midfield were suffocated and didnt have the angles and free players to be able to make any meaningful possession count.
United’s game plan seemed focused around trying to draw Spurs on to them and hit them on the counter and on a few occasions in the first half they did threaten in this way with Martial and Rashford having some joy. The fact United kept Rashford and Martial as high as the Spurs defensive line and Lingard not far off them signalled their intent.
As my xG timeline shows above Spurs managed to restrict United’s attacking threat in the first half with some low xG shots. But it was on the stroke of half time that United managed to create the one opportunity that would end up with them coming away from Wembley with all three points.
United had the idea to make sure Rashford and Martial stayed in the half spaces in between the Tottenham full backs and centre backs with Jesse Lingard occupying a more central role meaning the Spurs back four were stretched and with full backs Trippier and Ben Davies playing in their usual 10 yards inside the opposition half positions this then caused issues for Vertonghen and Alderweireld on who to pick up and when to shuffle accross not only due to the fact Rashford and Martial were in the half spaces but also if United decided to switch the play one of the two United front men could be in on goal, and so it proved.
It was no coincidence that Sissoko’s substitution on 43 minutes looked to have had an impact as Pogba was able to take a touch and dig an exqusite pass out over and into the right hand side channel in between Vertonghen and Davies that Rashford had been occupying since the first minute and fire a neat right foot finish across Lloris and in to the far corner, United’s occupancy of the half spaces from defense to attacking transitions had paid off.
United defending late in the game
A quick end to this post and i wanted to take a brief look at United’s defensive strategy toward the end of the game.
This is where i think Solskjaer deserves credit for the changes he made later on in the game.
After Pocchettino had brought Fernando Llorente on for Harry Winks in the 81st minute United knew they would be facing a barrage of crosses from the Spurs full backs especially from the Spurs right and side and the right foot of Kieron Trippier. So on came Diogo Dalot to add some more steel in front of Ashley Young at right back to halt Ben Davies charges down the flank and his crossing ability but also Marcus Rashford was deployed down the left hand side to cope with the pace of Trippier as United moved to a 4-5-1 shape with Romelu Lukaku as the lone striker chasing down loose clearances when United had managed to clear the ball long upfield. This essentially cut off the high ball supply in to the United penalty area with a relatively low number of those types of balls being crossed in and Spurs instead having to try to play their way in through the centre of the pitch which United had simply re-enforced with men.