Tottenham Hotspur have a lot of work to do if they are to salvage their season and make a late challenge for a top-four place. Jose Mourinho’s side currently sit seven points short of the Champions League spots with just nine games of the 2019/20 left to play.
Three points against Manchester United on Friday night is a must if they are to stand any chance of making up that difference.
United come into this game on a good run of form. Of course, that form has been severely fragmented by the coronavirus shutdown, with the Premier League taking a three-month hiatus before this week’s return, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side are unbeaten in their last 11 games, winning eight and drawing three.
Spurs must hit the ground running. Mourinho must provide answers to questions he has faced since the moment he arrived as Mauricio Pochettino’s replacement last November. No time can be wasted and Friday’s fixture against Manchester United is among the toughest first tests Tottenham could have been handed.
There are weaknesses to be exploited in United, though. This might be a team that has built up a head of steam since January, when the signing of Bruno Fernandes from Sporting Lisbon provided a catalyst, but they are far from infallible. Solskjaer’s side may have made progress, but they are still a grossly unbalanced and uneven team.
This could be evident in the centre of midfield should Solskjaer decide to use Fernandes and Pogba as a double pivot. Both players occupy similar areas of the pitch and with the latter now fit again having missed much of the season through injury it’s possible United could field them both on Friday night.
Even if Solskjaer decides to balance this out by deploying Nemanja Matic in an anchoring role, there will be significant scope for Spurs to exploit the space left between Manchester United’s defence and midfield. Matic could be swarmed by the likes of Heung-min Son, Harry Kane and Giovani Lo Celso, players all capable of imposing a high press.
Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof have shown signs of a developing partnership this season, but there is sometimes a failure to recognise which of the two should step out from the back when left exposed by their midfield. This has resulted in a number of goals conceded by United this season and Spurs, with their quality in the final third, are better equipped than most to pounce on this.
United are also relatively weak down their right-wing. Aaron Wan-Bissaka has made a good impression since arriving at Old Trafford from Crystal Palace last summer, but he is a defensive full-back rather than an attacking wing-back, as has become the norm in the modern game. This is another thing that could invite pressure on top of Manchester United’s defence.
It’s not even as if Solskjaer has a natural right winger higher up the pitch to compensate for Wan-Bissaka’s attacking deficiencies. Daniel James has played there but is only truly effective on the counter-attack. Juan Mata likes to drift inside while Jesse Lingard has struggled badly for form this season.