To play the Manchester United way or the Jose Mourinho way? Tactics will shape Tottenham's fluid attack
As Tottenham Hotspur repeatedly and exhilaratingly ripped through Liverpool on Sunday, it was difficult not to wonder what was going through Jose Mourinho’s mind.
This was on one hand the Liverpool FC team that he had got Manchester United to play so cautiously against the previous week, but who were clearly so desperately fragile at the back. Did he regret not going for it more at Anfield, not testing that backline, especially given all of the debate about his side’s defensive approach?
On the other hand, this was the Spurs team he would be facing in the Premier League next, and who were looking so fearsome. Was he relishing offering the appropriate response to all of the criticism from the 0-0 at Anfield by going at them… or was he just thinking Spurs would actually warrant a similarly constrained approach?
Whatever Mourinho eventually decides on will not just go some way to deciding Saturday’s game at Old Trafford, but also potentially this wider debate about his whole approach - and whether we will ever see him really play the way United supposedly should, at least in big games.
From that perspective, too, it has been a curious time for links to Paris Saint-Germain to come up given how so much of this is relevant to the future at United in other ways.
One of the primary criticisms of Mourinho from that game at Anfield was that it just displayed how his entire notion of football is reactive, and that reflected an inherently cautious mindset that could now be costly in a more expansive modern game when wins against the rest of the top six matter more than ever, and where Manchester City are playing such rampaging football. It’s just his nature.
Some of the main responses to that have been that it would have been too dangerous to open out against Liverpool’s attack, that Jurgen Klopp’s side actually have a good defensive record at Anfield, that it’s actually quite difficult to play for a point in the way he did and that might have been a tactical masterclass had Romelu Lukaku taken the one chance United had.
The very fact it was just that one chance says a lot in itself, though, and it’s equally impossible to escape the feeling that United were just needlessly withdrawn.
That now creates more of a need to step up in this next big game - especially since United are at home. If they don’t do it now, after all, when will they? And what would it say to so sit back at Old Trafford? What would it indicate?
There is a pressure there.
And complicating all of this is Spurs’ own confidence.
If this match offers so much to dwell upon for Mourinho, that is not the case for Mauricio Pochettino. There is no pressure there, at least in how they set up. While it would suddenly seem to require massive psychological effort for this United to change up, there is now a variation to Tottenham’s game that seems effortless.
It feels like Pochettino could easily pick from any of the six different starting formations or 10 different midfield configurations that he has used in a mere 14 games this season and it wouldn’t in any way disrupt their momentum, just as they can as easily press forward as sit back.
That has perhaps been the most striking aspect of Spurs’ campaign so far, beyond the consequence that they again look like they’re so over-performing and suddenly City’s biggest challengers. Pochettino has just made them so adaptable, capable of adjusting to any situation. As one club source added, too, “We could start with one formation but, once the ball is actually in play, it can be completely different.”
More pointedly, Spurs now look as comfortable breaking from deep as they do pressing high, as has been displayed with so many supreme counter-attacking goals of late. They have been brutally exploiting any side that dares to step up against them with rasping counters.
That is something else that complicates this match for Mourinho, that makes it such a dilemma for him.
Sitting back might actually be the best way to play against an attack that is so enjoying running into space, but can he really do that at home? And, if he does, would it just then run the greater risk of allowing Spurs to play what is their most “natural” game of playing high?
It does just feel right now as if all the onus is on United in that regard, that they are the team with the tough decision to make, because Spurs have the option of - well - adjusting to so many other formation options.
For his part, Mourinho’s approach is likely to be just as influenced by who he has available. The hope at United’s training ground is that Eric Bailly and Phil Jones will be fit, fortifying that defence and notionally allowing the Portuguese to get them to step up more because they are that bit more stable. Paul Pogba is unlikely to return, though, meaning United will still be without that crucial creativity from further back. His absence does have such a deep effect on the flow and innovation of their play.
The other element to all of this, though, is that Mourinho does have a fine home record against Pochettino - and that Spurs have been so strangely sluggish any time they have gone to Old Trafford in recent years.
Even if some of those games were at odd times - like the very start of the 2015-16 campaign - they did seem to be building up form last season, only to then crumble in terms of any kind of energy at Old Trafford.
There is a slight pressure on Pochettino in that sense. He hasn’t had too many wins away to the rest of the big six, and it does feel like that is the kind of ceiling that needs to be broken if they are to break the ceiling of actually winning something; of taking a title challenge all the way through.
So much this weekend might depend on what goes through Mourinho’s mind - and whether he takes the game to Spurs.