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Tactics Board: Man United bounce back against awful Spurs... but it may have come at a cost

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s decision to switch to 5-3-2 brought some defensive solidity on Saturday evening, writes Shane Keegan.


This game was billed as a battle between the Premier League’s two most under-fire managers, with plenty of media speculation that a defeat for either Nuno Espirito Santo or Ole Gunnar Solskjear could possibly spell the end of their reign.

With the pressure well and truly on, could either man use this game as a springboard to turn their season around?

Solskjear bounces back with help from awful Tottenham

manchester-uniteds-raphael-varane-celebrates-after-the-premier-league-match-at-tottenham-hotspur-stadium-london-picture-date-saturday-october-30-2021 Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Raphael Varane and the Man United players celebrate at the final whistle. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Looking back at Manchester United’s performance against Liverpool, there were serious questions marks as to why they took the approach that they did. The decision to try and engage such a free-flowing side high up the field in ones and twos was bewildering and resulted in a hammering.

Solskjear had to learn lessons this time around and to be fair to him he did, but he got a substantial helping hand from a Tottenham team who were desperately poor.

United’s switch to 5-3-2 brings some defensive solidity…

The switch to a 5-3-2 formation was brought about by a need to solve two key issues.

With Raphael Varane back available, the option to bolster their defensive numbers by including him alongside Victor Lindelof and Harry Maguire rather than sacrificing one of them for him made a lot of sense.

United had conceded nine goals in their previous two games and seemed to have continuous problems with teams getting in down the sides of their defence.

The new shape allowed their outside centre-backs to go and help their full-backs while still not being left a man short in the middle.

Below we can see an example from early in the game of United’s defensive shape, with their backline are in a comfortable 5 v 3 situation.

It also worth noting the positioning of Edinson Cavani, who has dropped off to stop Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg from getting on the ball. His work rate off the ball was a welcome addition to their set-up.

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While Aaron Wan-Bissaka gets sucked out towards Harry Kane, they are still left with more than enough cover down the channel allowing Lindelof, backed up by Varane, to easily deal with the attempted ball to Heung-min Son.

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From open play, United were comfortable with anything that was thrown at them all afternoon and looked much more at ease in their new set-up. Last weekend at Old Trafford, Liverpool had eight shots on target. This weekend Tottenham had none.

Even allowing for the massive gulf in class between their two opponents right now, that is still a substantial improvement and will surely act as a much-needed confidence boost for their defenders.

…and they reap the benefits of having a front two

The second reason for the change in shape was that it allowed Solskjear to get Cavani into his team alongside Cristiano Ronaldo.

Backlines have become so accustomed to only having to deal with one centre forward they seem to really struggle now when faced with a front two.

Below, we see an example of the issues it can cause, despite neither Ronaldo or Cavani actually being directly involved in the play.

As Luke Shaw drives forward with ball, Emerson Royal is unable to come out and confront him as he’s tied up with Ronaldo. Cavani, looking to create room for Shaw to deliver into, comes towards the play and draws Eric Dier with him, leaving a big hole in behind.

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None of that is an excuse though for the lacklustre effort made by Oliver Skipp and Ben Davies to try to get goal side of Bruno Fernandes, who advances into a goalscoring position at his ease only for the ball to skip away from him and the chance to pass.

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Later in the game, already one-nil up, United’s front two combine brilliantly. Cavani initially drops deep again to help his sides defensive efforts but quickly springs forward when Fernandes pounces on Skipp’s poor first touch after receiving a pass from Hojbjerg.

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Just seconds later, Ronaldo slides a perfectly weighted ball between Dier and Romero for the Uruguayan to race onto and dink over the advancing Hugo Lloris.

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It was Ronaldo’s first assist since coming back to the club, but it could be something we see more of if he is to have a regular strike partner.

New front two, same result

Late in the game, United get a third with their new front two of Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford causing the problems this time.

When Lingard comes deep to offer himself as an out ball from Maguire, he is tracked all the way by Tottenham centre-back Cristian Romero. He plays the ball inside to Fred and the United attack continues.

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Romero though, makes little to no effort to get back into his position and with Emerson not showing enough defensive instincts to cover for him the Tottenham backline is all over the place.

Matic can’t believe his luck as he lifts his head to see Rashford left completely unmarked and duly supplies the assist for the goal.

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What’s gone wrong at Spurs? 

At the beginning of September, Nuno Espirito Santo picked up the Manager of the Month award for August as his side sat top of the Premier league table after three games.

Two months later, and just 17 games into his tenure as Tottenham Hotspur manager, he has been sacked. In hindsight, the manner in which those three one-nil victories in August were achieved was an early indicator of why Espirito Santo’s appointment was highly unlikely to ever work out.

His predecessor, Jose Mourinho, had been relieved of his duties mainly on the grounds of how dull his sides had become to watch. Yet here we were with what appeared to carbon copy approach.

Take a look at this table below to see just how poor Tottenham have been going forward.

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Quite how an attack that boasts Kane and Son has managed to create significantly less goal scoring chances so far this season than the likes of Chris Wood and Ashley Barnes at Burnley or Che Adams and Adam Armstrong at Southampton is quite perplexing.

Equally concerning are their numbers around distance covered per game. While not an entirely accurate conclusion, many would see this number as a gauge as to how much effort their players are putting in, so being rock bottom on this table wouldn’t sit well with supporters or, more importantly, in the boardroom.


On Saturday morning, Antonio Conte was being strongly linked with a move to Old Trafford. At the time of writing this piece, Sky Sports are reporting that he is on his way to London to agree terms with Daniel Levy’s Tottenham.

You would have to wonder if the weekend’s victory may have come at a substantial cost to Manchester United.

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