A solid, if unspectacular, victory over Everton keeps United firmly in the hunt for top 4. With games quickly running out, however, United need to keep the winning streak going. I mean, granted it’s currently at 2 wins, but hey, beggars can’t be choosers. What better time, then, to come up against title chasers Tottenham Hotspur…
Cast your mind back to August 2015. A perceivably solid transfer window had left the squad resembling something closer to what van Gaal wanted structurally. With hopes renewed after a season of fluctuations, alternating between extremely dour and actually pretty good seemingly dependent on the day of the week, many fans, myself included, were hoping for tangible evidence that improvement, and the range of emotions that it brings, were on the way. Week one, game one, Tottenham Hotspur; a side that have, amazingly, finished 5th every season for the past 78 years.United won that game 1-0, off a wonderful solo effort from Own Goal (a full write up from yours truly can be found here). That win should have been the start of something positive, and, for Spurs, one that saw their eternal quest for fourth hit a bump before it’s even started. 8 months on, and those roles are reversed. Spurs find themselves in the mix for the title for the first time since February 2012, and United have squandered away their championship aspirations to join West Ham and Man City in the battle for 4th. The two sides reconvene this Sunday in an attempt to (just about) kill off each others aspirations to salvage their own.
Despite their incredibly slow start (3 points from a possible 12 in their first four games), Mauricio Pochettino’s men have been as entertaining have they have impressive. And despite being 7 points (at the time of writing) off top, you cannot underestimate the job that side have done this season. Arguably they’ve been the most entertaining of the sides at the top of the table, they’re a side who’ve scored the most and conceded the least, who knows what might have been had their slow start been ended quicker than it had been. Gone is the deadwood, a side abundant with underachievers on wages they couldn’t possibly live up to, transformed into one that is filled to the brim with youthful exuberance. Talent is the key word when discussing this Spurs outfit, and while “one season wonder-turned-actual best striker in the Premier League” Harry Kane and “the new Paul Gascoigne” Dele Alli are (mostly rightfully) take the plaudits every week, however huge praise needs to be heaped upon the shoulders of both Eric Dier and Toby Alderweireld. Dier has converted himself into a holding midfielder of actual class, and Belgian Toby, who was so impressive in his stint at Southampton last season, has looked every bit as good, if not better, at Spurs. Combine this with a world class goalkeeper in Hugo Lloris, and it’s no wonder spurs have only conceded 25 goals this season. Whatever happens this season, they can take confidence in knowing they’ve a side still growing (the average age of this side is 24.9), and a manager that is up there with the best in the league, tactically. With Champions League football looming next season, after 6 seasons without, Spurs will be hoping the best is yet to come from this side.
For United, the expectation is another relatively unchanged side, and with (relative) good reason. United have managed to string together two 1-0 victories over two good sides, and at this stage of the season, is far more important than any performance you might dream of. Against Everton, United managed only one meaningful effort, and that was the goal. It appeared to be a good summary of the season, that game, actually. For spells, in the second half especially, United looked swashbuckling in their attack, yet unable to create anything of worth. What we can take from that game is how perfectly the Smalling-Blind partnership contained Lukaku. He was barely given a sniff. One of the most highly regarded centre forwards in the Premier League, and even in European football, snuffed silent. One thing you cannot deny is United’s record defensively this season. Second only to Spurs in terms of goals conceded, and unmatched in terms of the amount of clean sheets kept, one wonders where we might be if injuries hadn’t ravaged the squad in the middle of the season. Or we could score more goals.
The only change I could possibly see being made might be Herrera coming in for either Carrick or Schneiderlin. Don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan of both players, and, on paper, this is a partnership that should reap rewards, with Scheniderlin winning the ball, and Carrick moving onto the front four. In reality, there’s an issue of pace and urgency, neither player seemingly willing to play a pass early. The idea appears to be that we can score with more numbers up the pitch, despite there being very little evidence for this over the course of the season so far. Herrera offers positivity in his movement and his execution, and if we’re going to win tomorrow, which we need to do, we need to get at this Spurs side, in spite of their lack of obvious frailties.
At the same time, however, United need to contain the dynamic duo that is Harry Kane and Dele Alli. While I have every faith in Chris Smalling to keep Kane in his back pocket, which he has done since 2014, however van Gaal may feel Carrick and Schneiderlin might be better suited to keeping Dele Alli from adding to his 7 goals and 9 assists.
That said, Rojo was replaced fairly early on in the Everton tie. While I’m not sure whether van Gaal feels it’s still too early for the Argentine to complete a game, or whether there was a concern injury-wise remains to be seen, however, if the latter is the case, I imagine Tim Fosu-Mensah will step in at right back, with Darmian moving over to the left.
Up top, I can’t imagine Martial will get a chance through the middle after another goal off the left, and Rashford continues to mature into the role thrust upon him. Lingard and Mata may well carry on sharing minutes at right wing/central attacking midfield, so hopefully we’ll see the rewards for consistency begin to come to the fore. As with last week, I imagine this to be the line up.
This is must win, for both sides. While that can often lead to a stalemate, I’m not so sure that’ll be the case. The key is going to be whether United can weather the Spurs attacks. Chances will come from the wings, as Rose and Walker bomb forward, it’ll come from whether we can take advantage of those spaces.