Will Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United take it to Tottenham?
Will Manchester United be more expansive against Tottenham? Is it even true that they are negative in the big games? Adam Bate looks at why Jose Mourinho’s approach against Tottenham at Old Trafford on Saturday could end up defining their season…
After four consecutive away games, Manchester United are back at their Old Trafford home on Saturday for the stadium’s first crackerjack occasion of the 2017/18 season. Jose Mourinho’s men have helped themselves to 21 goals in six games at the Theatre of Dreams so far and conceded only once – a consolation for Burton Albion in the Carabao Cup.
Saturday promises to be a very different mood. In-form Tottenham are the visitors. Mauricio Pochettino’s men arrive fresh from putting four past the same Liverpool defence that United barely threatened to breach one week earlier. Spurs’ last away game also saw them earn a creditable point at the home of European champions Real Madrid. This will be a test.
United’s stalemate at Anfield has been the subject of much scrutiny since. Although Mourinho’s strategy was utterly predictable, he was still faced with renewed accusations that he is ‘the enemy of football’ and familiar talk of his duty to entertain. More worryingly for the man himself is the suggestion that his approach to big games is not actually working.
“Jose Mourinho has always been lauded – and rightly so – as the man for the big occasion,” Jamie Carragher told Monday Night Football. “His way, of late, is not working. With the top six now that’s 30 points. It’s a big part of the season. You’ve got 10 games home and away. If that doesn’t improve they won’t win the league and that’s when the criticism will come.”
The statistic that United have failed to win any of their last 10 away matches against their five biggest rivals – scoring only once in the process – was used to highlight this flaw in Mourinho’s tactics. But the story at Old Trafford is rather different. Last season, United managed to beat the top two, Chelsea and Tottenham, without conceding a goal.
On both occasions, their opponents had more of the ball. On both occasions, United had more shots on target. They were value for the victories but Mourinho’s verdict on the win over Spurs was revealing. “It was not a bad weekend for us,” he said afterwards. “Especially because our match at home was one of those when a draw would be something normal.”
United were chasing Spurs at the time so Mourinho’s assessment reflected the table. And given his pre-season predictions – “everybody speaks about the dimension of the investment at Man City but there is another team that I feel the dimension of their investment is also phenomenal: Tottenham” – his opinion is unlikely to have changed.
But the appetite is there now for United to flex their muscles. Supporters crave the sort of swaggering performance against a rival that they have been starved of in recent years. It has been 31 months and 25 games against the big six since Louis van Gaal’s United beat Pochettino’s Tottenham 3-0 in this fixture at Old Trafford in March 2015.
Every other big-six team has enjoyed at least one three-goal win over a rival since then. The trio of London clubs have even inflicted such defeats on United themselves. But Mourinho’s men surely now have the confidence to do that kind of damage too – either by dominating the ball or penetrating on the counter-attack. Will they be let off the leash to do it?
For Mourinho, his approach and its success or failure could be season defining. Despite their Carabao Cup slip-up in midweek, Pochettino appears to be revelling in his role at Tottenham right now – confident in the knowledge that his own players will adapt to the tactical surprises he springs far better than his opponents. The Spurs boss has options.
Mourinho’s choice is less appealing. If he attacks Tottenham, he risks going against his instincts and exposing his team against opponents well equipped to take advantage. If he keeps things tighter, despite his insistence at Anfield that the onus is on the home side to open these matches up, he risks further criticism of his negativity. He really needs a win.
With Manchester City facing out-of-form West Brom later in the day, a draw at Old Trafford could well see Pep Guardiola’s team open up a seven-point lead at the top of the Premier League table this weekend. Hardly an ideal situation for a front-runner like Mourinho. Whether that prospect is enough to persuade him to be more positive remains to be seen.