Will Man United attack Tottenham at Old Trafford or play to avoid defeat?
Tottenham's visit to Old Trafford last December was a huge game. Manchester United had won only one of their previous eight league outings, a record you'd associate with a relegation-threatened side. Jose Mourinho's men won 1-0 against Mauricio Pochettino's team that day, kick-starting a run of eight straight wins that only came to an end when United drew against a not-very-good Liverpool.
History repeated when a still-not-very-good Liverpool ended United's recent six-game winning run. Even two weeks after that dreadful game at Anfield, it irritates that United applied the brakes to a style of football that was working. The players didn't want it, but the players have to obey their manager. That draw and the unconvincing performance in Lisbon followed by the defeat at Huddersfield, which was followed by an almighty dressing room rollicking by Mourinho, have seen doubts arise for the first time this season among fans.
The players were subjected to Mourinho's strongest words yet, only comparable in recent years to a furious Louis van Gaal following United's 5-3 defeat at Leicester City in 2014. Even without Paul Pogba, Eric Bailly, Marouane Fellaini and even with Phil Jones going off injured, United were woeful against a side who'd scored once in their previous six games.
Huddersfield deserved their win and such unpredictable results make the Premier League so attractive, but United fans were rightly unhappy and wondering where their team is at the moment. Is it any better that United are able to beat the bottom sides with ease but come unstuck as soon as it encounters opposition likely to finish in the top six such as Liverpool? While the players took the telling off at Huddersfield, they weren't all delighted at the negative tactics at Anfield when they felt that a weak Liverpool defence could be attacked.
Such differences of opinion are normal in any dressing room and the pressure is on for United to get back on track. Tuesday's Carabao Cup win at Swansea was encouraging, especially with Jesse Lingard's goals and the performances of youngsters Axel Tuanzebe and Scott Mctominay, but Tottenham is the test. It always was, too. Tottenham don't win league title,s but they're a big draw at Old Trafford. Long before Old Trafford was full for every game and attendances could be measured in part by how attractive the opposition were, Tottenham attracted the highest home crowd of the 1985-86 season.
Facing Tottenham at home is equally significant this season as United embark on their first tough run; after Spurs comes a trip to Chelsea away next week, where United lost twice last season. Spurs, who attracted 80,827 for Sunday's win against Liverpool, the biggest crowd for a league game between two English clubs since United got 83,260 vs. Arsenal in 1948 when the team relocated to Maine Road after Old Trafford was unusable during World War II, are in a good place.
"Harry Kane astonishes weekly," explains Alan Fisher, a Spurs fan and joint author of 'A People's History of Tottenham Hotspur.' "Jan Vertonghen continues to impress in defence and Christian Eriksen with his combination of ceaseless, intelligent movement and an eye for an opening has become indispensable.
"Harry Winks is fit again, a genuine prospect. One feature of this current Spurs squad is that everyone is worth their place and everyone gives of their best. It's taken a season but even [Moussa] Sissoko has sussed that he has to play at the team's pace rather than waiting for everyone else to slow down to his natural tempo. So the only disappointment is off the field with Danny Rose's negative comments about his situation and the fans."
Like United, Spurs have 20 points from their opening nine games. When the teams met last year in Manchester, Mourinho was of the opinion that Pochettino had more time to build and shape his squad. That's still true, and Spurs are miles away from the dismissive 'Lads, it's Tottenham' comment made by former United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, but it's also not unfair to judge United's manager 16 months into his time in Manchester when playing Tottenham at home.
It's intriguing: Do United do as they have always been expected to do at Old Trafford and attack? Or does Mourinho set up to avoid defeat against a side that finished 17 points ahead of them in May and led by Kane, the league's top scorer?
Pochettino has admirers at Old Trafford, chief among them being Ferguson. He's the name mentioned when there's talk of United's next manager after Mourinho spoke to French television in excellent French and talks effusively about Paris Saint-Germain. That unnerved United fans only for their manager to play down his comments a couple of days later. That's what Mourinho does, but his stock remains high among United fans. He has steadied the ship, won trophies and bought well; he also has done it in a relatively short space of time, as is now expected at the biggest clubs in the world.
Mourinho is also right to admonish under-performing, inconsistent players. Play for Manchester United and you need to be an 8/10 player 8/10 times, not once a month. The form of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Juan Mata and Ander Herrera (when played) has caused concern, while the left-back spot remains unresolved. It's hard to see Luke Shaw having a future at United no matter how many positive tweets the people managing his social media profiles send out. The absence of Michael Carrick, a man who can still open up a game, also intrigues.
Manchester City's form doesn't help the mood among United either but there's plenty of perspective. United are in a far better position than they were a year ago, with more points, goals scored and fewer conceded. Add to that three straight Champions League group stage wins, of course, but their confidence could be rocked if United can't get results against their rivals. United managed it against Spurs last year. They need to do the same on Saturday.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.