Tottenham Hotspur – Manchester United: Does Changing Your Shape Equal A Tactical Masterclass? (0-3)

After a week of uncertainty, Ole Gunnar Solskjær changed his team’s formation, away to a Tottenham Hotspur team in dire need of a convincing performance. Manchester United ran away 3-0 winners, but did this rotation result in the tactical masterstroke that one desired?

Tactical analysis and match report by Joel Parker. 

Poor defeats to close rivals, stacked on top of undesirable starts to the season, have led to the latest addition of Tottenham versus Man United labelled as El Sackio.

Nuno Espírito Santo’s team have seen themselves past the lower-level competition, but the distance between themselves and the elite has never been as big in a decade. Crystal Palace, Chelsea and Arsenal all breezed past Spurs, whilst not taking a single shot in the last twenty minutes at West Ham, despite trailing 1-0. Pressure has already increased on Nuno, as his team have shown no progression with another Portuguesman.

The sluggish start seen by Man United had raised alarm bells, but Liverpool’s total dismantlement of a chaotic and disorganized team saw eyes on Ole Gunnar Solskjær like never before. Tactical flaws had been smeared by late comebacks, but it left a rawer taste when such faults were revealed again in a brutal result.

Tottenham made two changes to the team that were beaten by West Ham. Ben Davies came in for Sergio Reguilón in the left-back position, whilst Giovani Lo Celso replaced Tanguy Ndombele, to play just behind the striker.

Solskjær’s changes were more radical, as his side switched to a 3-4-1-2 system. Raphaël Varane made his first appearance since early October who slotted into the center of the defense. Edinson Cavani was the other inclusion, as Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood were put on the bench.

 Teams of no principles

The switch to a back five was a curious decision from a manager who is not renowned for tactical reinvention for an opponent. It’s not like Solskjær hasn’t changed the shape before, but in his early period at United, where change was more common, it was to integrate United’s elite counterattacking forwards. In a 5-3-2 formation, with Cristiano Ronaldo and Edinson Cavani as your front two, you’re not going to form transitional moves.

United didn’t engage in the horrendous pressing seen last week, but still had half-baked pressure to confront the Tottenham fullbacks, Aaron Wan-Bissaka stepped up on the right to press Ben Davies, whilst Fred pushed up on Emerson Royal.

When engaging higher up, United wasn’t a team that covered space well. Bruno Fernandes had phases where he also moved out of the wide central-midfield position, but Solskjær’s team weren’t entirely cohesive when their midfield was engaged. Scott McTominay was forced to cover spaces down both sides, whilst Fred and Fernandes weren’t entirely disciplined in moving back to a deeper position when the ball was down the far side.

5th minute: Tottenham wall pass combination showcased how easy it could be to play through Man United’s midfield. Højbjerg moves the ball more central, which pulled Fernandes. McTominay was pinned by multiple Spurs players on his right shoulder, whilst Fred took a step to his left, because of Lo Celso’s presence. Lane opens to Son (Grey ball, first pass), which produced a third man run from Lo Celso to meet Son’s lay off (Black ball, second pass.)

Fortunately for United’s patchy medium block, they were up against a team that doesn’t have the buildup principles needed to penetrate through. Spaces were open for wide forwards to roam, drop into and collect, something which Lucas Moura and Giovani Lo Celso were attempting to do, but the lack of pinning from the full-backs resulted in these areas of the pitch being closed. Tottenham made the pitch significantly smaller for themselves, and once they were forced backwards and United could reset, they fell into the traps of U-shaped circulation.

 Different shape, same United

In possession, things didn’t look too dissimilar from a United standpoint. Solskjær’s team were set up in a 3-4-1-2 formation, with the type of lateral passing moves one would expect between the Fred and McTominay partnership, with Luke Shaw and Wan-Bissaka as wingbacks.

Tottenham pressed in a narrow 4-2-3-1 system, which further encouraged sideways passing across the Man United backline. The difference between Tottenham and United’s building was that the wingbacks were much more accessible. United could bypass the Spurs press, by a long switch out wide towards Shaw or Wan-Bissaka.

6th minute: Tottenham’s passive 4-2-3-1 formation, which saw aggressive pressing triggers coming from the double pivot. This opened them up down the channels, McTominay made a simple pass to Fernandes, which created a two-versus-one on Davies.

Spurs also lacked the cohesiveness between their midfield, even when they moved into a passive 4-2-3-1 medium block. Both Oliver Skipp and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg had moments where they drastically pushed forward to press, which left huge spaces between the lines. This mostly benefitted Bruno Fernandes, who continued to stick to the right side of the United attack and put him in the position to turn, then drive into good crossing locations.

Their forms of shot creation came from crosses, with no penetrative routes back into the halfspaces, without moving the ball backwards. As the story usually goes for United in recent years, the sheer individual class upfront bailed out an unimaginative and uncreative system. United kept their attack going, following several attempted balls towards the box. Fernandes dispatched an excellent crossfield ball towards the back post, finished on the volley by Cristiano Ronaldo, whose trademark movement created separation from Davies.

 Four shots in forty-five minutes

The second half was defined by Man United punishing Spurs attempts in breaking them down. Nuno’s team were in control of the possession in the second period, but an abundance of structural issues kept Spurs at two shots attempted in that time.

In possession, Tottenham’s shape made connections and partnerships very difficult to form, as well as driving the ball down just one channel. With Skipp remaining central and Højbjerg’s attempts of joining the attack, Spurs circulation amongst the two center-backs and double pivot was dysfunctional, not obtaining the progressive passer or carrier needed to offer a vertical route.

Lo Celso continued to drop, as deep as the pivot, whilst Lucas Moura also offered flexibility down the right with his movements, but these felt more like individualistic traits rather than rehearsed moves to enhance the team. Tottenham’s attack only sparked when Heung-Min Son made a curved, powerful run between the center-backs and into the right channel, but these moments came few and far between.

58th minute: Tottenham’s general 4-2-3-1 buildup shape, versus Man United’s 5-3-2/5-2-3 medium block.

Nuno’s plan for the buildup was transfixed to the right of the field and offered zero patterns to play through the United block. Replacing Moura with Steven Bergwijn saw the Dutchman positioned on the left and Son onto the right, but Tottenham forwards looked even more disconnected. Harry Kane sat between Varane and Victor Lindelöf, the only central presence, whilst the lack of wide pinning failed to stretch United’s defensive line.

After the hour mark, Spurs were punished and brutally exposed on the defensive transition, after a poor Skipp touch created a three-versus-three. In a rare throwback to the Barclays era, Ronaldo chopped past an opposition player and slotted the ball through for Edinson Cavani to produce the coolest of finishes, dinking the ball over a diving Hugo Lloris, which nestled into the corner of the goal.

Nuno’s addition of Ndombele was the obvious choice, but another midfielder who looks to carry the ball forward and make runs, next to another in the double pivot, resulted in similar results for Spurs. After United doubled their advantage, Spurs had one shot registered from the 70% possession they had from the second goal onwards.

United added a third goal, from an embarrassing defensive point-of-view. As an attempted transition broke down, United continued to circulate the ball as Spurs reset. Marcus Rashford moved from an offside position, back onside, yet not a single defender picked him up, as a simple pass from fellow substitute Nemanja Matić carved through the middle of the defense.


This was a match with much higher stakes and implications than ninety minutes between dysfunctional opponents could truly justify. Changing your teams’ shape doesn’t equate to a masterstroke or tactical nous when it doesn’t add anything or solve your teams’ flaws.

Solskjær’s United have shown how running your club on a game-by-game basis is limited. Victory at Tottenham doesn’t change anything, nor should it change the pressure that he is currently under. United was unconvincing, yet was better against a Spurs team that looked shells of their former selves.

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Joel Parker (21) is an Everton fan. Whenever he’s not watching his beloved Everton, Joel spends his time analyzing all sorts of football. Chief editor and Founder of Toffee Analysis. [ View all posts ]


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