Manchester United – Tottenham Hotspur: Rashford Fires United To Victory Against Disappointing Spurs (2-1)

A strong individual performance from Marcus Rashford was arguably the highlight in a game wherein Spurs were firmly unspectacular in their performance. They struggled to construct attacks against the narrow pressing of United and their defensive scheme at times was quite uncompact, which allowed United to quickly move the ball forward. 

Tactical analysis and match report by Josh Manley.

Tottenham came to Old Trafford with three wins in a row under new manager José Mourinho. These wins were not completely convincing though, as they conceded twice in each of those games. Spurs’ defensive record will surely be something Mourinho is concerned with addressing as soon as possible. 

Meanwhile, Manchester United’s last three games had been less fruitful. The away defeat to Astana was relatively inconsequential, as it featured hardly any first team players. The draws against Sheffield United and Aston Villa however did draw plenty of criticism, as Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s side begin to slip further behind in the race for Champions League places. 

For his return to his former club, Mourinho named two changes from the starting eleven that beat Bournemouth at the weekend. Eric Dier and Tanguy Ndombele were dropped to the bench, making way for Harry Winks and Lucas Moura. Winks would partner Moussa Sissoko in central midfield, with the trio of Lucas Moura, Dele Alli andHeung-min Son behind Harry Kane in a 4-2-3-1 formation. 

Solskjær also lined his team up in a 4-2-3-1 shape, making four changes from their home draw against Aston Villa on Sunday. Brandon Williams was replaced by Ashley Young at left back, while Scott McTominay’s return from injury meant Andreas Pereira dropped to the bench. Finally, Juan Mata and Anthony Martial were replaced by Jesse Lingard and Mason Greenwood respectively.

General movements and positioning of United in possession, against Spurs’ 4-4-2 / 4-2-4 shape.

United superior in early exchanges

After just six minutes United struck the first blow in this game, as Marcus Rashford’s powerful shot from the side of the penalty box managed to beat Tottenham goalkeeper Paulo Gazzaniga at his near post. This set the scene for much of the first half. United, although not spectacular, were on top in the game. Rashford continued to look dangerous with his dribbling and movement, as well as going on to hit the crossbar with a spectacular effort from distance later on in the half. 

In terms of structure, United operated from a 4-2-3-1 shape, which could appear as 4-2-4, as the forwards flattened themselves out across the width of the pitch. It was not uncommon for Greenwood, the central striker, to drop into gaps between the lines around the right halfspace, If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have the freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. while Lingard shifted to the left slightly in the other halfspace and was able to pick up some decent positions between the lines. 

This left Rashford and James to hold the width. James usually stayed closer to the touchline, while Rashford also had license to drift inside, occasionally rotating with Lingard. Meanwhile, United’s fullbacks would start from relatively deep positions, usually only pushing forward in the later stages of attacking moves. 

The deep positioning of the United fullbacks had an effect on the Spurs wide midfielders Lucas Moura and Son, as it dragged them out further in order to cover the United fullbacks in pressing. This reduced Tottenham’s overall compactness, and enlarged the spaces between fullback, central midfielder and wide midfielder on each side for Spurs. At times this meant Sissoko and Winks in particular had large amounts of space they had to control. 

This ultimately made it easier for United to play direct passes into the feet of the forward players, especially into the wingers. Spurs were usually able to prevent direct progression to the central midfielders when they positioned themselves behind the first line of Spurs pressure, but often United would just bypass this line through more direct passes or playing over the wings. 

Spurs lacklustre in possession

In Mourinho’s first few games as Spurs manager, he seems to have added building with a back three into his repertoire of tactical means. This was notable in their game away at West Ham, where they built in a 3-2-4-1 structure, which is not typical of what Mourinho has been doing over the years. 

For this game though, for whatever reason, it seems that the back three in buildup was shelved. They started with Vertonghen as left back, who would seem a good fit for a transition into a back three due to his most common position being as a left sided center-back.

However, for the first hour of the game at least, Vertonghen mostly functioned like a more conventional left back. There was still some asymmetry between the behaviour of the fullbacks, as Aurier tended to move forward earlier and more purposefully than Vertonghen on the left, who preferred to stay in deeper positions initially, but still playing close to the touchline. 

In many of Spurs attacking sequences, the strategy seemed to be to build up on the left side of the pitch, before switching the ball to Aurier making forward runs on the right, who would then look to cross or otherwise get the ball into dangerous areas.

To support this, there was plenty of rotation between Son and Alli from the left wing and number ten positions. Alli could be seen drifting into left wing positions, as well as dropping deeper in the left halfspace, positioning himself on the same line as Sissoko and Winks. 

Tottenham’s 4-2-3-1 / 4-2-4 shape when attacking.

The narrow positioning of United’s wide midfielders in pressing made it difficult for Alli to affect the game in this deeper left halfspace zone, as James, or whoever was occupying the right midfield slot, usually had good coverage of the halfspace.

Alli’s forays onto the left wing were a bit more fruitful, allowing him to try and link up with Son who would make diagonal movements towards the center and threatening the space behind United’s defense between Wan-Bissaka and Lindelöf. 

Spurs’ buildup struggled against the narrow pressing of United though. Like United, it was not that easy for them to access their central midfielders when the center-backs had the ball, due to their flat positioning and being trapped in the cover shadows When a player is positioning himself between the opponent that has possession of the ball and another opponent, he is blocking the passing lane. When applied the right way, his ‘shadow’ is effectively taking the opponent in his back out of the game, because the pass can not be played. of Lingard and Greenwood. 

Spurs often sought to play direct then, which seems increasingly common under Mourinho, as most would expect. They often looked to play long passes towards Kane with the intention of being able to win the second balls with the likes of Lucas Moura, Alli and Son swarming around the ball. 

Despite being relatively disappointing for much of the first half, Spurs were able to go in at half time with the scoreline level thanks to Alli’s goal in the thirty-ninth minute. The Englishman impressively controlled a high looping ball in the box with an exquisite first touch before slotting past David De Gea in the United goal. 

Rashford penalty enough for the win

Just like in the first half, United started the second half with an early goal. Rashford was again the danger man, as he was brought down in the box by Sissoko seconds after nutmegging Aurier, having picked the ball up on the left wing. He calmly rolled the penalty past Gazzaniga, giving United a 2-1 lead. 

The next notable tactical point arrived about fifteen minutes after this, as Mourinho introduced Christian Eriksen in place of Lucas Moura. Shortly afterwards, he also brought on Ndombele in place of Winks. 

With these changes, Spurs also reverted to the 3-2-4-1 buildup structure seen in previous games, rather than the more standard 4-2-3-1 used so far in this match. As ever, the defensive scheme remained a 4-2-3-1 shape. 

Spurs in possession after Eriksen and Ndombele were introduced.

Naturally, Vertonghen was the one to tuck in to create the back three, while Aurier continued to be aggressive on the right side. Sissoko and Ndombele made up the double pivot, 4-2-3-1 is one of the most frequently occurring formations in football. The two most defensive midfielders are called a ‘double pivot’. while Eriksen and Alli operated as the two number tens. Son was now sticking more strictly to a left wing position, seeking isolation situations against Wan-Bissaka. 

Spurs were still often required (as well as probably choosing to do so on their own account) to use direct means to advance the ball though. Long balls towards Kane as well as long switches to the wings were still relatively common.

With a back three and a double pivot in front, there was limited width in the first two lines of buildup, with Aurier and Son, the only sources of width, being further up the pitch. This meant that there was not necessarily an immediate outlet against United’s narrow pressing as would be offered by more conventional fullbacks. 

This meant that United’s narrow front four could focus on generating good pressure on the Spurs buildup in central areas to force them into long passes. The fact that Spurs had a spell of almost thirty minutes in the second half where they did not muster a shot goes some way to telling the story of their performance. 

In seeing out the game, Solskjær brought on Pereira for Greenwood in the final ten minutes, moving Rashford to number nine and James to the left of midfield with Pereira on the right. Then for the last few minutes of the game Luke Shaw was introduced in place of Lingard, possibly to keep tabs on Aurier’s advances on the right. He slotted in at left wing-back as United finished the game in a 5-4-1. They would hold onto the win in this shape. 


This was a much-needed result for United, after a disappointing last ten days or so. There were impressive performances from certain individuals, such as Victor Lindelöf, McTominay and of course Rashford. However, on a team tactical level, they were not necessarily outstanding. Furthermore, the goals they scored were ultimately quite cheap, with Gazzaniga being beaten at his near post for the first, and an unnecessary penalty given away for the second. This is not to detract from the quality shown by Rashford in taking these goals, but in terms of creating chances for sustainable goal-scoring from open play, there was again not a lot to be found. 

The overall performance of Spurs was quite disappointing. The way in which United were able to quickly reach their forward players, Rashford especially, should be cause for concern. In attack, the buildup was not often smooth, despite the strategy of switching attacks from left-to-right showing some promise. This will likely only strengthen calls for the likes of Ndombele and Giovani Lo Celso to see more first team action to offer greater playmaking ability from midfield. 

Use the arrows to scroll through all available match plots. Click to enlarge.
Check the match plots page for plots of other matches.

Josh Manley (21) is a student and aspiring coach. Heavily interested in tactics and strategy in football. Watching teams from all top European leagues, but especially Manchester United and Barcelona. [ View all posts ]


Be the first to comment on this article

Leave a Reply

Go to TOP