On Monday night at Old Trafford, Jose Mourinho's Manchester United mustered more shots (23) than they had managed in their two previous Premier League games combined (17), and yet at the end of their game against Tottenham Hotspur, the Red Devils were 3-0 losers.
Much had been made of United's 3-2 defeat to Brighton and Hove Albion the previous weekend. The tension generated from the result perhaps forced Mourinho to reshuffle his pack for what was already a make-or-break fixture in the season's opening month.
Six starting lineup changes ensued and the playing eleven was shoehorned into a new-look 3-5-1-1 system. Mourinho, who had used a back three on occasions last season – most notably in the FA Cup final and the corresponding league fixture against Spurs – started Ander Herrera in an unconventional right centre-back role. With Nemanja Matic in holding midfield, United seemed to have enough security at the back to employ a ferocious press in the game's early exchanges.
Manchester United's 3-5-1-1 formation and energetic start
United's shift of shape was to allow their forward players more freedom to attack while remaining relatively secure at the back, a tactic that was spot on until their second-half collapse. In a game that had a lot of turnovers – according to Opta, Spurs had only 68% pass completion – United were visibly the better side in the first half solely due to their greater energy out of possession.
Spurs, in a midfield diamond, had little answer to United's high-pressing game led by Jesse Lingard and struggled to control their own buildup in a frantic early part of the first half. Such was the initial pressure on Spurs that Danny Rose almost gifted Romelu Lukaku a goal with a weak backpass only for the striker to miss an open goal, albeit from a tight angle.
Harry Kane and Lucas Moura, the two forwards in Tottenham's 4-4-2, were dealt with easily by United's three centre-backs, while the Red Devils immediately looked for the channels whenever they recovered the ball in the middle third.
Red Devils force the issue but attacking shortcomings remain
United's purpose and intent was there for all to see in the first half, yet for all of Mourinho's defensive organisation, the Portuguese is a rather basic tactician when it comes to offence. Part of his plan against Spurs was to press high and force the north Londoners into mistakes inside their own half. Another idea was to attack Tottenham's wide defensive channels by using the pace and strength of Lingard and Lukaku.
In a diamond midfield system, there is a lack of width which is often compensated for by attacking full-backs. As Spurs tried to build play along the wide areas, any turnover would lead to United immediately attacking the space behind Spurs' full-backs. Both Kieran Trippier and Rose had difficulty dealing with this tactic.
Still, hitting the channels is more often than not a 50-50 in terms of chance creation and Spurs goalkeeper Hugo Lloris barely had to make any notable interventions during United's spell of supposed dominance.
Spurs take a cue from United to seal three points
While it was clear that Mauricio Pochettino had Tottenham playing a midfield diamond behind Kane and Lucas, the pieces in that central structure kept on changing throughout the game. Mousa Dembele, Eric Dier, Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen kept switching places in the diamond, with Alli most often seen at the tip of it and Dembele at the base.
Those positional switches were primarily due to United's pressing scheme that merited protection for the fullbacks. When Rose was troubled by Lingard's channel runs, Dembele shifted to the left of the diamond with Dier at the base. Similarly, Dembele shifted to the base when Dier provided extra buffer for Trippier.
Therefore, it was interesting to note how Spurs came out in the second half with a scheme that mirrored United's in the first half. Spurs started to attack the space behind United's wing-backs to create chances. Inside the first seven minutes of the second half, they were sitting on a 2-0 lead solely by virtue of exploiting the wide channels, something that United had done in the first half without any success.
The event that led to the corner from which Kane scored in the 50th minute was a blocked Alli shot off a cross from Eriksen who found the time and space behind United left wing-back Luke Shaw. The scenario was almost similar for Lucas's 52nd-minute goal; Eriksen once again exploiting the space behind Shaw to cross.
Mourinho has a lot to ponder
Spurs had only nine shots in the match compared to United's glut but scored three more than the home team. It is untypical of Tottenham to be outshot, particularly by a team of limited attacking designs like United, hence the game was more a demonstration of the Red Devils' inadequacies in attack than anything else.
So much so that even after Alexis Sanchez and Marouane Fellaini came on at 0-2, United barely looked like registering a goal. Instead, it was Spurs who knocked the game dead with a goal from a counter-attack late on.
United might have looked the better team for most parts of the match until Tottenham's two quick second-half goals, but the quality of chances created were poor and difficult to convert off. With questions mounting, a bit more offensive organisation is clearly the need of the hour for Mourinho and his team, for whom, even the glamorous confines of Old Trafford aren't providing much protection.
Updated Date: Aug 28, 2018 11:59 AM