A bigger game for both these teams than they care to admit. Jose Mourinho has won a lot of big games recently but in the aftermath of Manchester City’s title win and their Champions League exit to Sevilla, there have been questions asked over his style and his suitability to United, whereas Mauricio Pochettino has completely turned around Tottenham, but is yet to win any silverware and is finding it tougher to keep his squad together. Although they would prefer to be fighting for the league or Champions League, a FA Cup proves a point for both men.
Mourinho sent out his men in a 4-3-3 formation, while Pochettino opted for a 4-2-3-1.
Spurs started the game the better of the two sides for the most part because they outnumbered United in the middle of the park. Alexis Sanchez and Jesse Lingard would follow Kieran Trippier and Ben Davies deep into their own half, while Romelu Lukaku would stay high up against the centre-backs. Ander Herrera was keeping very close to Dele Alli, often following him wherever he went, and Tottenham took advantage of this by having Harry Kane drop off the frontline, with Alli pushing up to lead the line – Herrera would follow him but United’s centre-backs were unsure of whether to push out with Kane, so the striker was often left free in space that Alli had made for him.
In addition to this, Christian Eriksen was constantly drifting in from the right, adding a second man between the lines. With Herrera tracking Alli and Paul Pogba not the most defensively aware, Nemanja Matic was overrun, and Tottenham found it easy to move the ball up the pitch, with Moussa Dembele and Eric Dier facing little resistance once Spurs’ first line of defence had evaded United’s press.
Spurs took the lead just ten minutes in when United’s press went very wrong. Sanchez closed down Davinson Sanchez and Ashley Young pushed very high into the Spurs half to cut off the easy pass to Trippier, however this left a gaping hole down United’s left side. Eriksen left his usual infield position to race along the touchline and Pogba failed to track his run, leaving him free to pick out a pinpoint cross for Alli to slide in unopposed at the far post – Antonio Valencia unable to catch up with him while Chris Smalling was busy with Kane.
Nevertheless, it worked well thirteen minutes later. A free kick rolled out towards the corner, Trippier picked it up and, closed down by Lukaku, sent it down the line for Dembele. The Belgian – both one of the most technically gifted and physically imposing players in the league, making it near impossible to get the ball off him – was then unceremoniously dumped onto the floor as Pogba won the ball and cross it to the back post, Sanchez on hand to finish ahead of Davies.
This was a common trend, albeit with Sanchez and Lukaku’s roles reversed, as United targeted the weaker right side of Spurs’ defence. The Chilean would drift into the middle while Pogba pulled out to the left and Young pushed up high, and the three of them would get the ball into a position to cross for Lukaku at the back post. Towards the end of the first half, Lukaku and Lingard also started to switch positions – sometimes putting the Belgian directly against Davies, who wouldn’t push too far forward anyway, while Lingard could do more to stop the ball being played into midfield, covering passing lanes into Dembele.
Another notable change as the half drew to a close was that Sanchez was no longer following Trippier, but instead tucking inside. He would drift inside when United were in possession anyway and it probably helped his pressing duties too, as when Spurs first played it out from the goalkeeper he was expected to close down his namesake, but the real benefit it had was shutting down some of the space in the centre. Eriksen’s movement had been causing United plenty of trouble in the opening stages, but as soon as Sanchez moved inside the Dane was popping up in deeper areas than before to get on the ball.
This of course left Young alone against Trippier, but this game was a perfect example of how much Spurs miss Kyle Walker and Danny Rose. Young struggles defensively but Trippier never really exposed that – knowing he didn’t have the athleticism to beat him down the outside, Young could just close him down before he sent in a cross and that was that.
Son Heung-min would hug the touchline on the left but was always looking to come inside, while Trippier was high and wide but still didn’t offer any real threat of width. This meant that United back four could stay narrow with little consequence and as a result Eriksen, Alli and Kane had less space to work in. Davies and Trippier have both worked hard to improve but they simply don’t offer that same threat as Rose and Walker, which would have full-backs scrambling across to cover, opening up space for their forwards as a result.
United went in front mid-way through the second half. David De Gea booted a long ball forward and, as Sanchez held it up, Dembele failed to follow Herrera’s run forward. Sanchez passed it inside and Lukaku’s failed first touch rolled into the path of Herrera to shoot home first time.
United then shut up shop. They dropped back into two deep lines, leaving Lukaku up front and introduced Marcus Rashford to use his pace on the counter and Matteo Darmian and Marouane Fellaini to shore up the defence.
Pochettino rearranged his team too. Lucas Moura, Victor Wanyama and Erik Lamela were brought on at the expense of Davies, Dembele and Son. This meant a backline of Vertonghen moving up into midfield as Davies had done, Dier and Sanchez in the middle and Trippier high and wide, Wanyama protecting them, Eriksen and sometimes Alli dropping back ahead of them to play the ball into the final third, Lucas Moura, Lamela and often Alli between the lines, and Kane up front. Son was last to be hooked, but once he was gone the team was even narrower: no one was wide on the left and there was only Trippier on the right.
Tottenham never really looked like scoring for that remaining half an hour – their best players were all in the middle and United had ten players squeezing that space tight, running the clock down and breaking up play to stop Spurs gaining any rhythm. It was textbook Mourinho and he’s the one facing his former team Chelsea in the final.