One hour before Mourinho’s comeback to Old Trafford (almost) everybody was amazed with his starting eleven. From a theoretical point a view the attacking ideas that made the highlights of his first three games at Tottenham were there. So no tricks on the sleeve, no added powerful midfielder, no added centre back, no winger as false nine. He confused the pundits that, before the match that reunited him with his old team, were expecting a dominant side. However there were changes and apart from the design of the starting eleven Mourinho was, once more, very conservative and careful.
If there was a thing that Mou brought to White Hart Lane that was a new approach to build-up play. Three on the back (two centre backs and the left back) two options in front of them, two declared wingers (Son on the left, Aurier on the right) and three more occupating the space in between lines (Alli, Moura and Kane). That was his new and unseen view as a starting point to control the games with a squad used to have the ball more time than the opponents.
But at Old Trafford all changed. Yes, José kept the names, but he knew that the physical side of the game would be a massive key to this match – especially at the beginning. So he changed his approach to a (much) more conservative way of build up. No more profound Aurier, no more wide open three at the back. Four options (with the full backs almost in line with the centre backs) could not start plays and they were completely swallowed by United’s strenght, pressure and intensity.
So, it’s not completely true that Mourinho maintained his attacking approach. And the change that he did could have been nuclear to the final score. But, however, there can be some logic on his approach. This because Tottenham, on his first three games, did not make solid starts. The team seems unsure of itself and Mourinho knew that at Old Trafford (against a physical side) it would probably happen again. So he changed his approach to avoid United’s biggest strenght: positive transitions.
But Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wanted more than that. And from the beginning the red devils won every single duel, every second ball. With a compact midfield they narrowed the space on one side and after winning the ball (as they did every time!) they looked immediately to the other side – where the wingers, Marcus and Daniel, were waiting. No space for Spurs to build up, no space in the central area and no space in between lines. So what could Tottenham do?
Go to the sides and cross the ball was the answer. On the short periods of time that the Spurs could have the ball on the opponents half all they could do was go to the sides and cross, and that, in theory, is a massive blow on Tottenham’s strengths. But football demolishes theory everytime. And apart from United’s exceptional first half (with Rashford not only offering the lead but creating a vast number of chances to score again) it was from a cross (the only flaw on Solskjaer’s strategy) that Dele Alli could show all is talent. Strategy 1-1 Chance.
Alli’s goal gave the boost to a dark mindset transform itself on a glowing second half – Mourinho thought. From there on, the ball would be on Spurs feet and they could replicate what they did on previous games: more control from the build-up creating space for Alli, Son, Lucas and Kane to show up. But, again, theory is one thing, reality is another. And the bad starts never ceased to exist for the Spurs side. Again, Tottenham’s came from the dressing room half asleep and could not match the United’s intensity. And Marcus Rashford was the front face to that fact, creating and scoring the penalty that gave the red devils a deserved lead and victory. Manchester United was on top of that game, and from there on there was nothing that Mourinho could do (Eriksen, N’dombelé, Lo Celso) that changed that. Not on those forty-something minutes, because that is a work that will take months and it is more than tactic, strategical and individual. It is completely psychological because, as they say, there is no pass the ball without take the ball, and Tottenham’s players cannot, at this moment, believe, or have the will to, take the ball, win it, touch it, control it, from the beginning to the end.