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Manchester United predicted lineup and tactics: How does Erik Ten Hag Beat Tottenham?

(Photo by Sebastian Frej/MB Media/Getty Images)

It’s been a turbulent season so far for Erik ten Hag and Manchester United. The tribulations continue as United are set to host Ange Postecoglou’s Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday evening at Old Trafford. 

When United met Tottenham in North-London at the beginning of the season, Spurs ran out 2-0 winners. United produced a fine first-half performance but failed to convert their chances. In the second-half, United’s performance dropped off massively and the Reds failed to assert any level of dominance. Tottenham took full advantage of that and in the end, deservedly took the three points. 

Both teams head into this clash with a lot of unavailable players. Spurs will be without key men Yves Bissouma, Pape Matar Sarr, Heung-Min Son as all three players are currently away on international duty. James Maddison, who has been exceptional this season, is still likely to be unavailable as he continues to recover from an injury sustained a while back. 

United will be without Sofyan Amrabat who is away on international duty at the African Cup of Nations. Andre Onana will be available for selection against Spurs, but is set to fly to Africa after the game to meet up with the rest of the Cameroon squad. Regarding players coming back from injury, Ten Hag has said: “Some players are hopeful that they can be back for the weekend [against Spurs], Christian Eriksen, potentially Luke Shaw. Harry [Maguire] maybe. Mason [Mount] needs some days or a week more…”

Lisandro Martinez and Casemiro have both returned to training, but are unlikely to be fit to play on Sunday. 

Predicted Manchester United Line-Up: André Onana, Diogo Dalot, Jonny Evans, Raphaël Varane, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Kobbie Mainoo, Scott McTominay, Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford, Rasmus Højlund, Alejandro Garnacho 

Manchester United’s System in Possession

Erik ten Hag has been persisting with a 3-1-6 in possession this season, despite there being many clear and obvious flaws to the system. United typically build up in a 3-1 structure to get 6 men higher up the pitch. The issue with this system is that it makes build-up a lot more difficult because most teams normally press with at least four players, which means United don’t have a +1 in build-up. In addition to that, it leaves United extremely vulnerable on the counter-attack as there’s only four men back to defend. Even more worryingly, despite playing this extremely attacking system, only Burnley and Sheffield United have scored less goals than Erik ten Hag’s side in the Premier League so far this season. 

When chasing a game against a team who utilises a low-block, a 3-1-6 is can be an excellent system, as we saw earlier in the season when United came from 2-0 down to beat Nottingham Forest 3-2 at Old Trafford. However, it’s a difficult system to coach and with the current group of players Ten Hag has, it’s just not sustainable. As we saw last season, Ten Hag is an excellent tactician and is very tactically flexible, which is why it’s perplexing that he has persisted with such a flawed system. 

The lack of security a 3-1-6 system offers in build-up is always a problem, but even more so against teams, like Spurs, who press aggressively high up the pitch. Spurs have won possession in the final third more than any other team in the Premier League so far this season. It would be an incredibly naive move from Ten Hag to use the 3-1-6 on Sunday at Old Trafford. 

There’s two ways Ten Hag should set United up in possession:

  1. 4-2-4/2-4-4: The opening forty minutes against FC Copenhagen in Denmark was some of the best football Manchester United have played this season. In possession, United lined-up in a 2-4-4/4-2-4 system and it worked brilliantly. Copenhagen didn’t press aggressively high-up the pitch but United’s build-up play was extremely impressive nonetheless. This system is quite a simple tactical system that doesn’t require players straying too far out of their natural position. Having six players in build-up against a team who presses as efficiently as Spurs would certainly help. 
  1. 3-2-5: The 3-2-5 is a system that can work well and actually fits United’s available players fairly well. Diogo Dalot, who will likely start at left-back, has proven himself to be a very capable inverted full-back and could form a double pivot alongside Kobbie Mainoo in build-up. Those two players are both very good technicians and capable ball-progresors, both through passing and carrying. This system would allow Scott McTominay to play high up the pitch where he excels and would also mean that Bruno Fernandes wouldn’t need to drop deep to assist in build-up, as he has had to on several occasions this season. 

Manchester United Out of Possession

Manchester United’s high-press this season has actually been very good. Tottenham are the only team who have won possession in the final third more than United this season. When United met Spurs at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium earlier in the season, United did an exceptional job at pressing Spurs high-up the pitch, particularly in the first half. United typically pressed in a 4-1-4-1 structure. Mason Mount, who will be unavailable on Sunday, was crucial to this high-press and will be a miss. Scott McTominay does have a lot of energy though and should be able to put in a decent shift in this role. 

The 2-3-5 system is typically what Postecoglou’s favours. Pressing with 5 men high up the pitch prevents them from having numerical superiority in build-up. Against Burnley, with Yves Bissouma and Papar Matar Sarr both being unavailable, Postecoglou opted for Oliver Skipp and Rodrigo Bentancur. 

Should Postecoglou choose to do the same vs United, Bentancur will likely take most of the responsibility in build-up with Oliver Skipp pushing further forward. 

The Opposition: Tottenham 

The job that Ange Postecoglou has done at Tottenham has been sensational. Even after losing the likes of James Maddison and Micky van de Ven through injury, Postecoglou has stuck to his principles and delivered results. Spurs are an extremely well-coached side with quality all over the pitch. 

As mentioned above, in possession Ange Postecoglou prefers a 2-3-5. In the absence of Micky van de Ven and Christian Romero, Postecoglou has opted to use Ben Davies and Emerson Royal as a centre-back pairing. That could however change on Sunday. Ben Davies, who has been very good this season, will likely miss the game after suffering a hamstring injury. Micky van de Ven returned to Spurs’ matchday squad in their game last Friday against Burnley in the FA Cup and will likely come back into the starting eleven against United. Emerson Royal has looked decent in right centre-back position but Spurs’ new signing Radu Dragusin could very possibly make his debut for Spurs at Old Trafford on Sunday. Dragusin is a very good addition to Postecoglou’s squad. He is an aggressive channel defender and very good in duels. 

Yves Bissouma has done an exceptional job this season fulfilling the role of the single pivot in build-up. While he is unavailable for this game, Rodrigo Bentacur is also more than capable of fulfilling the role to a high-level, as is Pierre-Emile Højbjerg who has been impressive this season when given the opportunity. With Pedro Porro and Destiny Udogie, Spurs have full-backs who are dangerous in the final third but also offer reliable presences in build-up. 

With Heung Min-Son unavailable, Spurs’ attack is certainly weakened. Against Burnley, Spurs’ attack was Brennan Johnson (LW), Giovanni Lo Celso (no.10), Dejan Kulusevski (RW) and Richardson (CF). According to reports, Lo Celso will likely miss Spurs’ visit to Old Trafford through injury. It will be interesting to see how Postecoglou will shape his attack, but he could possibly start new signing Timo Werner out wide, with Kulusevksi moving into more central areas. 

Opposition Player to Watch: Pedro Porro

Pedro Porro has been a revelation at Tottenham so far this season. Comfortable in build-up, but also sensational going forward, having already registered 6 assists so far this season in the Premier League. He’s a good crosser and is very creative. Out of possession, he’s a strong tackler and wins a lot of ground duels. 

Spurs have missed key players this season like James Maddison, Micky van de Ven and Christian Romero, but Porro has always been there and is now a prominent figure in Postecoglou’s starting line-up. 


While United go into this encounter as underdogs, United could seriously hurt Spurs. Postecoglou’s men play a very high-line and as seen vs Aston Villa on Boxing Day, Alejandro Garnacho and Marcus Rashford have the pace to cause serious issues against a high-line. Sitting deep, staying compact out of possession and hitting Spurs on the break might be Ten Hag’s best option to getting all three points. 

While he’s made a lot of mistakes this season, Erik ten Hag is still an excellent tactician and seeing how he approaches this game against a well-coached Tottenham Hotspur will certainly be intriguing. Ten Hag needs to find a way to get his team on a winning run, and with many players set to return in the coming days and weeks, a win against Spurs might just be what United need to get back on track, and end the season strongly.

Founder/Owner of UnitedConstantly

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