Manchester United Need a Win More Than Tottenham

ODESSA, UKRAINE - DECEMBER 07: Manager Jose Mourinho of Manchester United speaks during a press conference at Central Stadium Chernomorets on December 7, 2016 in Odessa, Ukraine. (Photo by John Peters/Man Utd via Getty Images)
ODESSA, UKRAINE - DECEMBER 07: Manager Jose Mourinho of Manchester United speaks during a press conference at Central Stadium Chernomorets on December 7, 2016 in Odessa, Ukraine. (Photo by John Peters/Man Utd via Getty Images) /

Win or lose on Sunday, and Tottenham will remain in fifth position — Manchester United are six points back in sixth place and can’t overcome that deficit.

Still, such six points gaps serve as inspiration for teams like Manchester United that are punching below their weight so far this season. Tottenham should be appropriately wary when they step out onto the pitch at Old Trafford.

A win over Tottenham and suddenly United are back in the mix. They would be three points closer to the Champions League places and have ample reason to take the next month of festive fixtures very seriously. Points get dropped, even at the top of the table, and United could take advantage.

Lose and, well, nine points is a big gap even in December. United might be better off throwing their weight into their Europa League campaign in hopes of winning it all and thus qualifying for the Champions League that way.

Relying on a knockout format for such ends is far from ideal though, which is why we can expect United to be putting everything they got into claiming all three points from Tottenham.

As we covered in our lineup predictor, they are in the same less-than-ideal boat as Tottenham. Both teams played strong sides in their midweek commitments in Europe, meaning that the players who do start Sunday will only be on a few days rest.

Among those players were Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba, Ander Herrera and Eric Bailly — all of whom played the full 90 minutes in United’s 2-0 away win against Ukrainian side Zorya.

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From front to make, those players represent Mourinho’s spine. He recruited all but Herrera this summer, and together they were to be the means through which United reclaimed its place atop the Premier League table.

United’s deficit to Spurs and the rest of the league’s top four shows just how far short of expectations this season’s been thus far.

Mourinho was brought in a man with not only tactical nous but also vital experience managing big egos and big salaries. Though there’s been no reports of disquiet in the dressing room, there are signs that perhaps Mourinho isn’t quite as savvy as he used to be.

Consider United’s two biggest losses this season. They came against Manchester City and Chelsea. Both victors were reactive, lethal in transition and generally able to cut United apart from the midfield on through to the goalkeeper.

Mourinho himself was once a leading light for these kinds of tactics, but starting with his second stint with Chelsea he began to favor the wait-it-out approach to football. Defend from front to back, keep the opposition away from the penalty area and wait for chances rather than creating them.

That can and does work, and indeed it was the type of football (former Mourinho mentor) Louis van Gaal had primed United to play over his previous two seasons with the club. That neither of those seasons were particularly successful didn’t appear to deter Mourinho from adopting the same tactics.

What does all this mean for Tottenham? It means that they will be playing a side determined to win but also anxious to not concede. Those are not mutually exclusive aims, of course, but they can sow confusion on certain areas of the pitch. Should Mourinho ask the likes of Henrikh Mhikitaryan, for instance, to defend as well as attack Tottenham might come out the better side.

The problem, if it can be summed up in a single sentence, is that United under Mourinho are not a side that forces its game on the opposition. They’re adaptive, composed, rigid and sometimes lethal, but this isn’t Conte’s Chelsea, Guardiola’s City or, for that matter, Pochettino’s Tottenham.

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Those sides come with a plan, one designed to rob the opposition of comfort or composure. United haven’t reacted well to tactics like that so far this season, and Tottenham might just represent another huge challenge.

That being said, this is still a side that features Pogba and Ibrahimovic, not to mention Anthony Martial and Antonio Valencia. There are threats everything and Tottenham would do well to treat them with an appropriate amount of respect.

There’s some tragedy — or perhaps some schadenfreude — of Manchester United encountering such a season-defining game as early as December. The shame or frustration wound up in that could provoke Mourinho into turning in a performance against Tottenham.