Fluent Tottenham upset Man United's man-marking plan with set-piece goals
Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho tried an unconventional man-marking system in a bid to stop Tottenham, but Mauricio Pochettino's side still ran out 2-1 winners in a fitting White Hart Lane farewell.
Hampered by heavy rotation ahead of the Europa League final, Manchester United followed a tailor-made defensive plan. Instead of marking zonally, Michael Carrick and Axel Tuanzebe tracked Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen respectively, while Jesse Lingard protected the full-back on whichever side Son Heung-min operated.
Elsewhere, Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney followed Eric Dier and Victor Wanyama, meaning every Spurs midfielder was occupied. But it worked better in theory than in practice, as a fluent Spurs dragged United out of shape and skipped into gaps vacated by man-marking players.
As it was, Spurs scored twice from set-pieces, forcing Mourinho to change plans near the hour-mark. That led to Rooney pulling one back, but Pochettino beefed up his midfield to protect a result that enabled Spurs to complete their first season without a league defeat at home since 1964-65.
United use man marking
Considering Mourinho's approach at other top-six clubs, United would always counter-attack here. What surprised more was the extent to which they tracked individuals around the pitch.
Anticipating that Spurs would play 4-2-3-1, Mourinho knew that Pochettino pushes his full-backs up field while Alli and Eriksen lurk between the lines. As such, United essentially used four central midfielders off the ball, Rooney and Mata marking the double pivot and Carrick and Tuanzebe following Alli and Eriksen.
At the back, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling battled Harry Kane, while Eric Bailly (right) and Daley Blind (left) confronted Spurs full-backs Kieran Trippier (right) and Ben Davies (left). That left only one free man: Son.
Since the South Korean tends to swap flanks, Mourinho instructed Lingard to track the full-back on the same side. So if Son drifted left, Lingard followed Davies so that Bailly could handle Son, and vice versa with Blind and Trippier. The whole system was unusual but, combined with a deep defensive line, Mourinho hoped it would repel Spurs.
Fluent Spurs strike from set-pieces
It did not quite happen. Spurs' midfield was quick and athletic, and their fluent movement forced United into a chaotic defensive shape.
Poor marking also undermined the visitors. On five minutes, Alli lost Carrick to sprint down the left and win a corner off Bailly, which Eriksen took short to Davies, whose in-swinging cross set up a powerful Wanyama header. That came as a result of Spurs' dominance; United had completed just eight passes until that point.
If the system proved taxing for Carrick and Tuanzebe, it hardly suited Rooney and Mata either. Even if Alli and Eriksen were tracked, United still had to pin back Wanyama, Dier or any defender fancying a slalom run past the man markers. Rooney and Mata struggled here and contributed to United missing all but one attempted tackle in this zone until the hour mark, with Rooney also committing four fouls and getting booked for cutting down Wanyama.
One episode summed up their issues. On 19 minutes, Son abandoned his wide role to pick up possession deep in midfield. Rooney and Mata watched Wanyama and Dier, meaning nobody got close enough to stop Son walking through the midfield zone. Son then tried a one-two, only for the ball to bounce back into him off Carrick and past both centre-backs, leaving him free to fire straight at David De Gea. Son needed a bit of luck to stumble through, but that kind of run would surely not have materialised against a normal zonal system.
Spurs created more. Kane headed an Eriksen cross just over, then played through Alli who tested De Gea, with Carrick trailing. Just before half-time, Spurs regained the ball so quickly that Tuanzebe had no time to recover his position, and Eriksen played in Kane who drew another fine De Gea stop.
For all that, Mourinho stuck to the system in the second half, only to see Kane make it 2-0 from an Eriksen free kick. While his plan did not work perfectly, the Portuguese must have been frustrated to see Spurs do the damage via set-pieces. "The two goals are two very bad goals to concede," he said.
United look for Martial
Less surprisingly, United had failed to score until that point, as they had in all of their previous five games away to top six teams under Mourinho. They had offered little here too, and the demanding man-marking did little to facilitate their more creative ambitions.
The idea was to find lone striker Anthony Martial out wide or in behind the defence, and push Rooney and Mata into the box. The full-backs occasionally joined in too, and on seven minutes Blind whipped in a cross that Mata headed wide from an offside position, with Rooney also nearby. The biggest chance, however, came when Rooney received a quick free kick and found Martial in behind a sleeping Spurs defence, the Frenchman cutting inside to curl a shot just wide.
Mourinho subs work, but Spurs hold on
Still, that was as good as it got for United in the first hour, so Mourinho had to try something else. He took off Tuanzebe and Lingard for Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Ander Herrera, thus breaking up the man-marking scheme and replacing steel with silk. Rooney now played up front, with Martial left, Mata right, and Mkhitaryan and Herrera ahead of Carrick in a 4-5-1.
This did boost United. Martial soon cut inside to fire another curler wide, and on 71 minutes, he popped up again, skipping past Trippier to cross low for Rooney who made it 2-1.
Sensing danger, Pochettino put on Mousa Dembele for Son to strengthen his midfield, to which Mourinho replied by introducing Marcus Rashford for Mata and instructed his side to launch balls over the top. It nearly paid off in stoppage time, when Rashford finished just wide under pressure, but Spurs survived to crown their final game at the Lane with a win.
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