Manchester United adapt to Spurs’ second half changes to seal the win against Jose Mourinho

Ahmed Walid
6 min readDec 6, 2019

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s squad has been producing varying performances this season. A slow start to the season was cardioverted with a draw against league leaders Liverpool. The draw was followed with impressive performances away to Norwich and home to Brighton.

It wasn’t all glamour though, these positive performances were sandwiched between abysmal displays away to Bournemouth and Sheffield United. Add to that the average display against Aston Villa on Sunday where United managed only a point at Old Trafford.

The appointment of Jose Mourinho at Tottenham Hotspur coincided with their trip to Old Trafford on Wednesday. After managing a perfect start beating West Ham United, Olympiacos and Bournemouth, Mourinho’s next test was a trip down memory lane.

The current state of both teams plus a Mourinho return to the ex made this encounter far more interesting than it would have normally been. United started the game positively through Marcus Rashford who hammered Paulo Gazzaniga with multiple strikes. One of those went past the Argentine goal-keeper to put United ahead.

It was all going well for Solskjaer’s team till Dele Alli managed a Bergkamp-esque flick to get past two United defenders with a single touch then score the equalizer.

1–1 ended the first half, but it seemed like it’s going to be one of those positive performances from United. It didn’t take long for them to take the lead again. In the beginning of the second half Moussa Sissoko tripped Rashford in the penalty box, and the striker calmly slotted the ball past Gazzaniga to put United in-front again.

Mourinho had to shuffle things around and he brought on Christian Eriksen in place of Lucas Moura. The 4–2–3–1 shape Spurs were playing slightly reformed with Eriksen moving inside into the right channel, Serge Aurier advancing on the right wing, and Sissoko covering for both of them from his place in midfield.

Manchester United instantly adapted to the Spurs’ changes. Fred man-marked Eriksen aggressively when the Dane floated in the right channel, Ashley Young kept his width to track Aurier, and Rashford tucked inside more to prevent Sissoko from being comfortable in possession.

Fred was like a leech on Eriksen’s skin, he never left the Spurs midfielder in the right channel. A long ball from Toby Alderweireld to Aurier was played as Spurs couldn’t bypass United’s defensive shape. What’s interesting here is Fred’s run, tracking Eriksen to prevent him from attacking the space behind Young.

United’s pressing scheme wasn’t intense but the shape they pressed in was intelligent. It limited Spurs’ passing options and forced them sideways most of the time.

Seen below, as Spurs are trying to progress up the field Eriksen drops to provide a passing option. Fred spots that and is quickly sprinting towards Eriksen even before Davinson Sanchez receives the ball.

When Sanchez has the ball his option are limited. The Colombian decides to give it to the best player available which is Eriksen.

Knowing that Fred is right behind him, Eriksen rushes his pass and plays a poor one to Aurier. The pass is impossible for Aurier to catch, and it results into a throw in for Manchester United.

The marking wasn’t blindly man-marking. When Eriksen dropped, the United players were alert to switch markers to also defend the zone.

As Fred anticipates the one-two between Aurier and Sissoko, he signals to Jesse Lingard to pick up Eriksen in case the Brazilian midfielder has to cover the space behind Young.

The hunches Fred had were correct, and his positioning put him in a good place to cover the space behind Young.

He beat Aurier to the ball, denying the right back from attacking the space behind Young. Not only that, Fred managed to regain the ball and restart a Manchester United attack.

Solskjaer also tried another tactic while still keeping the defensive setup mentioned above. He moved Daniel James to the left side to attack the space behind Aurier but there weren’t any major chances for the Welsh winger.

Fred’s harrowing continued, and with Sanchez pressed down by Lingard he rushes a pass into the center of the pitch which is straight at the Manchester United defenders.

Sanchez’s options were limited because of United’s defensive shape. Sissoko is in the cover shadow of Lingard, while James and Fred are ready to pounce in case Eriksen receives the ball.

Mourinho’s second switch was a more attacking one, introducing Giovani Lo Celso in place of Sissoko. Tanguy Ndombele who replaced Harry Winks earlier moved from the left of the midfield double pivot to the right. Meanwhile, Eriksen occupied the left side of the double pivot and Lo Celso took Eriksen’s old role of floating in the right channel.

Immediately after Lo Celso was brought on Solskjaer replaced Lingard — who already had a cramp a minute earlier — and brought on Luke Shaw. Defensively, Shaw dropped back to track Aurier and Young tucked inside to defend the space between Shaw and Harry Maguire. This also allowed Fred to push forward and face Ndombele who’s a far more threatening player than Sissoko in the position he’s playing in.

The snippet below illustrates this perfectly. Young’s positioning denies Lo Celso from making a run between Maguire and Shaw, a run which essentially puts him in a 1 v 1 situation against David de Gea. As mentioned above, it also relieves Fred to face Ndombele higher up the field. If Fred still had his original role of defending the channel, Ndombele would have had enough time and space to strike a better shot.

Even when the game was in the dying stages Manchester United still kept their shape. Young in position to defend the space between Maguire and Shaw, Fred closing down to assist, and Shaw keeping his width to prevent Aurier from crossing into the box.

The introduction of Shaw also freed Fred in midfield as Young took the role of marking the player in the channel (Lo Celso here).

Manchester United’s on and off performances have been putting Solskjaer in a bad position recently. The availability of Mauricio Pochettino isn’t helping the Norwegian’s case either. However — despite all of that — Solskjaer managed to nullify Mourinho’s changes and guide Manchester United to a win over their previous manager.