Ole Gunnar Solskjaer goes into his sixth game as Manchester United manager with a 100% record, having taken over from Jose Mourinho in his now regular third season meltdown, while Tottenham remain outside contenders for the title behind Liverpool and Manchester City.
Solskjaer and Mauricio Pochettino appeared to be picking the same 4-4-2 diamond formation on paper, but in practice United’s shape was more of a 4-3-3 as, although willing to drop off and play his more natural linking role, Jesse Lingard mainly stayed high and ran in behind Spurs’ backline.
As well as lining up in similar shapes, both teams ended up attacking quite directly. In Spurs’ case this was because they struggled to play out from the back. Lingard would stick close to Harry Winks, while Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford would curve their runs to block the passes into Kieran Trippier and Ben Davies, making it difficult for the centre-backs to play into midfield.
Christian Eriksen would sometimes drop back alongside Winks to aid the build-up but more often not it was Moussa Sissoko who moved back, which didn’t really help at all. Winks is good at evading pressure but he didn’t really have much to work with and as a result Spurs simply went long a lot of the time instead.
United’s direct attacking was more obviously intentional. With Davies and Trippier getting forward to provide width for Spurs, there was a lot of space out wide for United to exploit so Solskjaer positioned the pacey pair of Martial and Rashford there.
When United got the ball they would immediately send the ball forward and try to catch out Spurs three against two at the back, with the quick Lingard also joining in. It was a particularly difficult game for Trippier, who doesn’t have the pace to get back quickly, with Martial finding a lot of joy on the left.
It was Rashford that got the winning goal just before half-time though: Paul Pogba picking out a raking pass from his own half for the local lad to run onto and finish after Trippier misplaced a pass.
An injury to Sissoko just before that goal saw Spurs change to a 4-2-3-1. Eriksen joined Winks at the base of the midfield while Sissoko’s replacement Erik Lamela went wide right and Son Heung-min moved out to the left.
This had a number of benefits for Spurs. Firstly, having both Eriksen and Winks at the base of the midfield made it easier for them to play out, allowing them to work their way up the field more patiently than having the forwards chase long passes – which both Son and Harry Kane could do, but which isn’t exactly making the best use of them.
Secondly, having more width coming from Son and Lamela meant that Trippier and Davies weren’t required to get quite so high up the pitch, meaning United’s forwards had less space behind them to exploit.
Solskjaer also changed to a 4-2-3-1 in the second half, but this was only really a minor switch: Ander Herrera had been the more conservative of the pair ahead of Nemanja Matic anyway, so this freed up Pogba and gave Matic more cover.
Spurs had the better of the second half, constantly calling David de Gea into action as they rained crosses down into the United box, but were unable to get an equaliser. United didn’t necessarily defend well, however De Gea’s ability kept the home side at bay, allowing them to seal the three points.