After an entire week of calls for his head, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer put together a United masterclass, with the Red Devils smashing Nuno’s Spurs by a scoreline of 3-0. The former United legend exemplified innovation by implementing a 3-4-1-2 formation, getting the best out of the likes of Edinson Cavani and Bruno Fernandes, and completely undoing Tottenham’s 4-2-3-1 bra in the process. Here is our tactical analysis of the match.
MANCHESTER UNITED – 3-1-4-2
Coming under immense pressure heading into the match, Ole made the intelligent decision to switch formations and try something new. While changing formations and going away from what players have practiced for months to years can be a risky move, it completely paid off. By implementing a 3-4-1-2, Ole gave fewer defensive responsibilities to Luke Shaw, who had been massively struggling at the defensive side of the game in recent matches. He also allowed Fred and McTominay greater ease in transition, by having an extra defender to support that process. Meanwhile, he utilized Bruno’s engine and funneled everything toward the Portuguese playmaker, whilst re-integrating the energetic Edinson Cavani into the team. The re-introduction of Cavani was one of the keys to the game, and doing so in a front two meant that Ronaldo could still start the match and float around the pitch as he pleased, knowing the big Uruguayan remained ready to pounce in central areas.
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In possession, Manchester United utilized Fred, McTominay and Raphael Varane to switch play from left to right. They took advantage of the width provided by the fullbacks, and their high starting position, attempting to stretch Tottenham’s narrow press. Beyond utilizing width and switching play, the Red Devils were also effective in playing through the thirds and finding Bruno Fernandes in space. The Portuguese playmaker often dropped toward McTominay and Fred to pick up possession, but in other moments hovered close to the strikers, creating the opportunity for United to overload the centre of the pitch high up the field.
Ronaldo and Bruno both also picked moments to drift wide, which occasionally facilitated movement in-field either on or off the ball from Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka. Wan-Bissaka was more likely to engage in these underlapping runs off the ball, while Luke Shaw was more likely to utilize his pace and power to carry the ball at speed and drive toward the box. The wing-backs were also utilized in more of a natural wide role as expected, delivering crosses into the box for the powerful Cavani and Ronaldo to head home. It was however in transition or on the break where United were their most deadly and fruitful.
Seconds after winning the ball, they often looked for vertical progression into dangerous areas, and early balls into Cristiano Ronaldo in particular. These passes often came from Bruno himself, who was United’s most active and integral presser of the ball on the day. As Tottenham defenders would get attracted to Bruno and Ronaldo, they’d completely forget that the Red Devils had a second striker, and Cavani would be found in space. This was exemplified best for the second United goal, where Bruno Fernandes nicked the ball off Oliver Skipp, and passed early to Ronaldo. Dier came across to stop him, and so too (fatally) did Cristian Romero. That left Cavani wide open in the most dangerous area of the pitch, where the Uruguayan was then clinical in finding the back of the net off of a perfect Ronaldo pass.
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Manchester United pressed in the same 3-4-1-2 shape, with Cavani and Bruno taking turns as the one in behind the other two. Cavani completely justified his selection in his pressing abilities alone, often dropping centrally as Bruno pressed wide, and buzzing around the field like a bee to angle Spurs wide. Fred was often also active in stepping up, particularly in initial counter-pressing moments (i.e. immediately after United lost the ball). Through the body positioning of the likes of Cavani right from the front, United were effective at forcing Tottenham away from goal, and in keeping Spurs’ possession absolutely redundant and pointless.
When defending lower on the pitch and settling into more of a defensive shape, United prioritized central compactness in a 5-3-2 or 5-2-1-2 shape. Bruno Fernandes would often drop into right-half-spaces to help Fred and McTominay in their shape, particularly when the ball was on the right side of the Tottenham’s attack. The third centre-back also helped tremendously in tracking the shifting movements of Lo Celso, Son and Kane, with Tottenham only really troubling from set-pieces. Toward the end of the match, the Red Devils dropped into a more true 5-3-2 defensive shape, with Nemanja Matic screening passes into Harry Kane. They ended the match on a high in this shape, even scoring a late goal through a Matic assist to Marcus Rashford.
TOTTENHAM – 4-2-3-1
After starting the season with three wins from three and an excellent opening day victory against Manchester City, Nuno’s Tottenham have been quite poor. While they dominated possession for long spells in the game, Nuno’s team created very little in the match and only troubled United from set-pieces, and well, a League 2 side could trouble Manchester United from set-pieces. They deployed the same 4-2-3-1 formation that they’ve used to minimal success in recent weeks, continuing to fail to get the best out of Harry Kane in the Nuno era. For all his struggles at Spurs, that’s something Mourinho never failed in doing.
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Tottenham utilized a double midfield pivot of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Oliver Skipp to switch play and dictate the tempo of the game, whilst being slow to play out from the back between the centre-backs. Hojbjerg found life more difficult than normal, due to the constant energy from Bruno Fernandes and the intense marking he provided on the Dane. Skipp would occasionally find a clever pass forward, but those further up the pitch were rarely able to capitalize due to United’s compact structure. Lucas Moura meanwhile hovered centrally both in and out of possession, and often inverted himself as Emerson Royal got high and wide on the right. Heung-Min-Son often also shifted wide to the right, despite starting on the left, and struggled to get himself involved to the same extent as Moura. Son’s wide position restricted his normally brilliant central channel running, and meant Emerson sometimes inverted quite pointlessly, when the team would have benefited from the reverse. It also meant that Tottenham again lacked balance, playing without a left-winger for most of their time in possession. They then consistently played down the right – 50% of the time compared to 18% in the middle and 32% down the left, and were absolutely fruitless down this side despite their persistence.Embed from Getty Images
Out from the back, Giovani Lo Celso often interchanged with Harry Kane, who would drift deep to pick up possession, as expected of the striker these days. Kane’s movement in deep also sometimes allowed Son to receive in behind United’s defense in space, but this was a rarity to what we have seen of the striking duo over the past few seasons. It almost seems wild to say that Spurs had nearly 60% of the possession in the match, given that they did so little with it. They showed some bright moments in exploiting space between wing-back and outside-centre-back, but the final pass always let them down. Harry Kane was perhaps the poorest of all with his distribution, completing just 72% of his passes and always failing to connect when it mattered most.
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As a whole, Tottenham defended woefully on Saturday, allowing themselves to be far too open in stopping the Red Devils. They were extraordinarily narrow in their 4-2-3-1, focusing on pressing Fred and McTominay rather than making any attempt to stop United from playing into the wide areas. On a positive note, Lucas Moura pressed exceptionally well and stopped Fred in his tracks more than once. With Hojbjerg and Lucas on the same side, Fred found it difficult to penetrate vertically as McTominay found it on the other side. Sadly, the Brazilian was the first to be substituted by Nuno. This was a strange decision, as Lucas had been Spurs’ most efficient player both in and out of possession prior to coming off.Embed from Getty Images
While others like Romero and Hojbjerg had positive moments in stepping out, pressing, and winning the ball, Tottenham were poor on the day defensively and far too open. Romero and Dier couldn’t handle the movement and interchanging of United’s front three, and Ben Davies was often rash in diving into tackles, when he wasn’t out of position to begin with. Spurs struggled to condense the field and prioritize how to pressure and cover in defensive transitions, with the likes of Cavani and Rashford seamlessly finding acres of space to move into and score. Rashford’s goal was perhaps the most embarrassing from a Tottenham perspective, with the United striker easily finding space in between Royal and Dier to receive, before slotting it home.
Despite all their possession in the match, which was already fruitless, their woeful defending meant Nuno’s team never stood a chance, and would lose miserably.
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After an entire week full of disparaging comments from the media, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer helped to provide one of the standout Manchester United performances of the season. His formation change to 3-4-1-2 completely undid all of Tottenham’s narrow pressing in their 4-2-3-1, and allowed Bruno Fernandes to soar en route to victory. Solskjaer should stick to this formation for the next match, regardless of opposition, even if Edinson Cavani finds himself injured. Marcus Rashford could seamlessly come back into the fold, as could the young Mason Greenwood. Tottenham meanwhile have much to figure out, and Nuno looks destined for the sack much sooner than Solskjaer, despite how the media want to portray it. For now, United climb back up to fifth ahead of Arsenal and Brighton, while Tottenham drop down to eighth.
So there it is! A tactical analysis of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s fantastic formation change and win over Nuno’s Tottenham. Be sure to check out more of our Match Analyses, and follow on social media using the links below. Thanks for reading and see you soon!
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