How Spurs Can Overcome United

Jul 29, 2015; Denver, CO, USA; Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Christian Eriksen (23) makes a corner kick during the first half of the 2015 MLS All Star Game against the MLS All Stars at Dick
Jul 29, 2015; Denver, CO, USA; Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Christian Eriksen (23) makes a corner kick during the first half of the 2015 MLS All Star Game against the MLS All Stars at Dick /

As with any big match this season, Spurs will find the most success in Sunday’s match against Manchester United by pursuing one clear objective: balance.

Against the likes of Aston Villa or Bournemouth, Mauricio Pochettino could confidently instruct his squad to play on the front foot. Those are teams that Spurs should expect to be overawed by the high press and rapid transitions of Pochettino’s systems. Pushing for early goals has understandably become central to Pochettino’s instructions in those matches.

A different tact is required for matches against bigger, more confident teams. Arsenal and the Manchester clubs might be having disappointing seasons by their standards, but that doesn’t mean they can’t still pack a mean punch. Spurs have been correct in playing more conservatively in matches against those teams.

Which is why Spurs’ best-in-the-league defense is going to be stage one of the team’s efforts on Sunday. As Hotspur HQ’s own William Heyen pointed out yesterday, the ability for Spurs’ backline to track down United’ pacey front four is going to be absolutely critical on Sunday. The combination of Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata and Marcus Rashford have already caused no small amount of stress to Premier League defenses of late. Spurs need to be wary of what that quad can do.

United’s own defense is the obstacle for Spurs. With only 27 goals conceded this term – only two more than Spurs – United are nearly as intimidating as Toby Alderweireld and company. Breaking them down will fall to Spurs’ own front four, a group that might always not have the speed or vigor of United’s attack but are undoubtedly more effective.

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How are they more effective? It mostly comes down to the unique combination of players as Spurs’ disposal. While United effectively fields four more or less direct players – including two strikers – Spurs mix it up. Harry Kane’s prodigious efforts at center forward are the most traditional part. Dele Alli offers the ability to retrieve the ball from deep and move it forward, often to lethal effect. Érik Lamela keeps the press high up the pitch, tracking down opponents’ attempts to play the ball out of the back. And Christian Eriksen does just about everything else.

It’s almost a shame that Kane and Alli’s exploits have gradually overshadowed that of the Dane this season. Eriksen remains a hugely crucial aspect of Spurs’ attack even if he’s not a monster like Kane or a wunderkind like Alli. It’s his creative efforts that stitch together not only the entire attack, but everything that comes behind it. Eric Dier and Mousa Dembélé’s two-way play would mean nothing if it weren’t for a player like Eriksen coming deep to retrieve their passes forward and then expertly redirecting the ball into dangerous areas.

What’s that mean against United specifically? It means that the midfield positions behind their attacking quad won’t have as much liberty as they would like to surge forward on their own accord. Eriksen will keep them busy, as will Alli. Lamela’s insane press will cut off avenues for the defense to set them up and, of course, Kane will be waiting for quickly transitioned balls inside or around United’s penalty area.

At the pivot of that balancing act between defense and offense will be Dier and Dembélé. Their role, as ever, will be to control the game, keeping service to Rashford, et al to a low quality and also making sure route remains open to their own attackers ahead of them.

Next: Spurs and United's Fortunes Diverged Since August

Such holistic performances have been the hallmark of a Spurs side that has almost entirely shed their image as a team who chokes at crucial moments. United might have season to be hopeful, but they are not coming into this match as favorites.