Erik ten Hag’s Manchester United tactics vs Tottenham Hotspur previewed


Manchester United take on Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday as Erik ten Hag looks to make it two wins on the bounce. The Red Devils’ away form in the Premier League last season was a major point of concern, and one the team will be itching to show improvement in at the first time of asking. Here, The Peoples Person assesses the where the game could be won and lost.

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Ange Postecoglou: How will his team Attack?

One of the most consistent tactical aspects of Ange Postecoglou’s sides is his use of both wide defenders as fully inverted fullbacks to create a 2-3-5 shape in possession. This was on show against Brentford last weekend, where they were essentially able to pin The Bees’ outside midfielders, thus freeing up the passing lanes between each centre back and their respective near-side winger. With Spurs’ wide men staying high and hugging the touchline, they were easily found in space time and again.

As effective as this ploy was against Brentford in helping Tottenham keep the ball – they finished with 70% possession away from home – it is unlikely to be anywhere near as effective against Man United on Saturday. Ten Hag likes his wingers and generally gets a good amount of defensive intensity from them when required. Moreover, while Emerson Royale and new signing Destiny Udogie were both very comfortable on the ball on Sunday, they may not find it so easy to rack up 110 passes between them and a >90% accuracy with United generally good at forcing high turnovers with their midfielders.

As for Tottenham’s obvious danger-men, the combination of Antony and Aaron Wan-Bissaka on the right hand side, in particular, ought to keep this version of Son Heung-Min quiet with relative ease.

Perhaps it was just a bad day at the office for Spurs’ new captain, but he really does appear to have lost a step. Sixteen Premier League goal involvements last term may look impressive on the face of it, but it was just one over half of what he managed in the previous season, and without Harry Kane around to tee him up, the South Korea star will need to adapt his game to reach his former levels of productivity. At the weekend, it seemed as though he still has plenty of work to do, but with Son still the most dangerous wide attacker at Postecoglou’s disposal, Erik ten Hag will be glad to have a defensively solid right flank to halt him should he turn up.

The main threat will likely be James Maddison, however. The former Leicester City man took to the number ten shirt with aplomb and was by far Tottenham’s most creative player in their curtain raiser. He was, in point of fact, their only creative player. Even during a bad game, Son’s positioning was valuable in creating space for Maddison in the left half-space, despite Brentford’s compact low block.

If United leave anything like the kind of space in the middle of the park that they did against Wolves on Monday, the £40m summer signing will be a serious problem. The key to stopping Maddison will be bipartite. Firstly, United must realise that if they stop Maddison, they stop Spurs from creating and therefore can afford to focus their defensive strategy around him. Secondly, they must avoid conceding free kicks in dangerous positions, such is his threat from set pieces.

Erik ten Hag will Know Where to Pinch
If Tottenham’s left-hand side is the one to cover, their right flank is the one to exploit. On Sunday, Rico Lewis was Brentford’s main threat in terms of both ball progression and chance creation. His deep cross led to the penalty for The Bees’ equaliser, while a direct run to the byline allowed him to chop the ball back for Yoane Wissa to convert. He made a further two key passes and launched plenty of quick transitions with his direct running. Bearing in mind that Lewis was playing as a left wing back with no support, that is quite something and, as good as Lewis can be, it highlights a gaping weakness in Spurs’ setup.

Aside from the high line, it is the rotational triangle Spurs used between Emerson, Oliver Skipp, and Dejan Kulusevski that created this space for Lewis to attack. As previously discussed, both fullbacks invert into very central positions, but the Brazilian’s runs would often lead him into the vicinity of Brentford’s penalty spot. While Skipp provided some cover when the ball was in midfield, as Tottenham attempted to move up the pitch, he too would follow the play in-and-up the pitch. To make matters worse, the one player who could have access to a direct pass into the vacated area was Davinson Sanchez. With Cristian Romero a doubt due to concussion protocols, Postecoglou may be forced to depend on the erratic Colombian once more.

If Rico Lewis can instigate counter attacks at will from a left back position and flummox Emerson time and again, take a moment to consider what Marcus Rashford could do from his favoured left-wing role. With how high Postecoglou sets his defensive line, last term’s 30-goal star should be licking his lips at the prospect of facing this Spurs team. Tottenham have signed a good coach, but while his time at Celtic showed that he can overwhelm minnows sides with ease, his struggles in Europe could betray some tactical naivety.

Whether Ten Hag allows Rashford to take up his preferred position or not is anyone’s guess. Many expect him to play through the middle as a striker, but his inability to get on the ball against Wolves could force a rethink. Anthony Martial is probably not fit to start, but Jadon Sancho showed plenty of promise as a false nine in preseason, and could be an option to further pull the Spurs defence away from zones that Rashford can then attack.

Final Thoughts
This promises to be an entertaining affair, with both managers keen on attacking in numbers and counter-pressing with intensity.

Erik ten Hag has had a season to work with his team and is the more likely of the two managers to make that all-important tweak that could prove decisive. In our explainer on Box Midfields, we posited a few different systems the Dutchman could attempt throughout the season, however with Tottenham on their own turf and essentially playing with five in the middle, on this occasion we are hoping that the tweak he opts for is one that exploits the wide areas, where the space will be.

Ange Postecoglou is no slouch either, and his team have shown signs of attacking cohesion early into his life in London. Tottenham’s aforementioned home advantage will also be a big factor, particularly given Manchester United record last time out.

If United can keep Spurs’ left-hand side quiet and exploit the space afforded by their patterns of play on their right in transition, they will have an excellent chance of securing all three points to make it two out of two.