United Defeat Shows Mourinho Still Has Two Big Problems To Solve At Tottenham

Manchester United v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League
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It was all set up for the big comeback. The storyline was written: José Mourinho returns to Old Trafford and piles the pressure on his successor, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

But soccer does not always show great regard for the script.

Instead of Tottenham getting their fourth consecutive win and Mourinho getting one over the club that sacked him a year ago, Manchester United took the game to Spurs, putting in its best performance in weeks to secure a 2-1 win and the three points.

If Mourinho's start at his new club has been promising overall, then this defeat in the North West showed the Portuguese still has work to do if he is to make Tottenham a team that can challenge for titles. And two things in particular will have caught his attention.

Right Back

Spurs' problems down the right-hand side were enormously costly whilst Mauricio Pochettino was still in charge. In the Brighton game that it lost in early October, to choose just one example, Tottenham was destroyed down the right flank by the movement of Aarons Mooy and Connolly.

Yet rather than replace Pochettino's first-choice right back Serge Aurier, Mourinho looked to solve the problem by asking his other full-back to do more defensively.

Ben Davies and Danny Rose were given starts in the games against West Ham and Olympiacos, before Jan Vertonghen was brought into the side for the two Premier League fixtures with Bournemouth and United.

Vertonghen is mainly a centre-back, of course, and Davies has played on the left of a back three on many occasions, so their natural instincts are more conservative. And even when Danny Rose was included, he was asked to curb his more expansive impulses.

Whilst that might seem counter-intuitive, it was to some degree effective. A more defensive left back allowed the two Tottenham centre backs to push across and cover the space in behind Aurier, in turn allowing the Ivory Coast international the freedom to do what he does best; fly up the wing.

But United’s targeting of Aurier demonstrated that the issue has not completely gone away. When Marcus Rashford got the ball into feet and was able to run into that area of the pitch, he caused havoc.

As well as the England forward’s goal that opened the scoring, there was a slew of shots in the first half that came from attacks down United’s left. Rashford had two further attempts saved by Paulo Gazzaniga and Jesse Lingard sent another effort curling past the post.

Then, in the opening moments of the second period, Rashford nutmegged Aurier, dashed in behind him, forced Moussa Sissoko to come across and drew a foul in the box. The resulting penalty, converted by Rashford, proved the difference between the two teams.

Not all the blame can be placed at Aurier’s door; Davinson Sanchez and Gazzaniga were both at fault for the first goal and it was Sissoko who committed the foul for the penalty. But Mourinho will need to find a way to plug the hole on that side.

That might mean playing a different player in the position. If that is the case, then Juan Foyth would be the prime candidate.

Or it might mean going into the transfer market. If they do, then the first option is bringing in a direct replacement. Mourinho does not have the kind of money that United spent on Aaron Wan-Bissaka available to him, but you can’t help but feel that he'd love to have someone as defensively solid as the young Londoner at right back.

Alternatively, they could sign a more defensively-minded central midfielder, who could cover for Aurier when he goes up to attack, which may stem the flow of attacks down that side.

In opting for that solution, Mourinho would keep Aurier's useful attacking abilities, which he again demonstrated in the lead up to the Tottenham goal.

Midfield Creativity and Ball Retention

As Dele Alli showed with his Romário-esque finish towards the end of the first half, he is capable of stunning moments of individual brilliance. In tight spaces in the penalty area, there are few better in the Premier League.

Yet with Alli playing in the No.10 role and Son Heung-min and Lucas Moura on the wings, there is no place in the team for Christian Eriksen. And with no Eriksen, Spurs has more far more trouble holding onto the ball and finding that killer pass in the final third.

At Old Trafford on Wednesday night, there was a noticeable void between the two defensive midfielders, who were occupied trying to contain Lingard, Rashford and Daniel James, and the front four.

Eriksen is the master of operating in those spaces and was introduced as Mourinho looked to chase the game, but he cannot be relied on as a long-term solution. The Dane’s contract expires at the end of this season and he will receive a substantial pay rise if (or when) he moves.

In games against tougher opponents away from home, then, Mourinho will need to find another way of dominating the central midfield battle. In big games, sacrificing either Lucas or Son, pushing Dele out to the flank and bringing in one of Tanguy Ndombele or Giovani Lo Celso might be the way to go.

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It was all set up for the big comeback. The storyline was written: José Mourinho returns to Old Trafford and piles the pressure on his successor, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

But soccer does not always show great regard for the script.

Instead of Tottenham getting their fourth consecutive win and Mourinho getting one over the club that sacked him a year ago, Manchester United took the game to Spurs, putting in its best performance in weeks to secure a 2-1 win and the three points.

If Mourinho's start at his new club has been promising overall, then this defeat in the North West showed the Portuguese still has work to do if he is to make Tottenham a team that can challenge for titles. And two things in particular will have caught his attention.

Right Back

Spurs' problems down the right-hand side were enormously costly whilst Mauricio Pochettino was still in charge. In the Brighton game that it lost in early October, to choose just one example, Tottenham was destroyed down the right flank by the movement of Aarons Mooy and Connolly.

Yet rather than replace Pochettino's first-choice right back Serge Aurier, Mourinho looked to solve the problem by asking his other full-back to do more defensively.

Ben Davies and Danny Rose were given starts in the games against West Ham and Olympiacos, before Jan Vertonghen was brought into the side for the two Premier League fixtures with Bournemouth and United.

Vertonghen is mainly a centre-back, of course, and Davies has played on the left of a back three on many occasions, so their natural instincts are more conservative. And even when Danny Rose was included, he was asked to curb his more expansive impulses.

Whilst that might seem counter-intuitive, it was to some degree effective. A more defensive left back allowed the two Tottenham centre backs to push across and cover the space in behind Aurier, in turn allowing the Ivory Coast international the freedom to do what he does best; fly up the wing.

But United’s targeting of Aurier demonstrated that the issue has not completely gone away. When Marcus Rashford got the ball into feet and was able to run into that area of the pitch, he caused havoc.

As well as the England forward’s goal that opened the scoring, there was a slew of shots in the first half that came from attacks down United’s left. Rashford had two further attempts saved by Paulo Gazzaniga and Jesse Lingard sent another effort curling past the post.

Then, in the opening moments of the second period, Rashford nutmegged Aurier, dashed in behind him, forced Moussa Sissoko to come across and drew a foul in the box. The resulting penalty, converted by Rashford, proved the difference between the two teams.

Not all the blame can be placed at Aurier’s door; Davinson Sanchez and Gazzaniga were both at fault for the first goal and it was Sissoko who committed the foul for the penalty. But Mourinho will need to find a way to plug the hole on that side.

That might mean playing a different player in the position. If that is the case, then Juan Foyth would be the prime candidate.

Or it might mean going into the transfer market. If they do, then the first option is bringing in a direct replacement. Mourinho does not have the kind of money that United spent on Aaron Wan-Bissaka available to him, but you can’t help but feel that he'd love to have someone as defensively solid as the young Londoner at right back.

Alternatively, they could sign a more defensively-minded central midfielder, who could cover for Aurier when he goes up to attack, which may stem the flow of attacks down that side.

In opting for that solution, Mourinho would keep Aurier's useful attacking abilities, which he again demonstrated in the lead up to the Tottenham goal.

Midfield Creativity and Ball Retention

As Dele Alli showed with his Romário-esque finish towards the end of the first half, he is capable of stunning moments of individual brilliance. In tight spaces in the penalty area, there are few better in the Premier League.

Yet with Alli playing in the No.10 role and Son Heung-min and Lucas Moura on the wings, there is no place in the team for Christian Eriksen. And with no Eriksen, Spurs has more far more trouble holding onto the ball and finding that killer pass in the final third.

At Old Trafford on Wednesday night, there was a noticeable void between the two defensive midfielders, who were occupied trying to contain Lingard, Rashford and Daniel James, and the front four.

Eriksen is the master of operating in those spaces and was introduced as Mourinho looked to chase the game, but he cannot be relied on as a long-term solution. The Dane’s contract expires at the end of this season and he will receive a substantial pay rise if (or when) he moves.

In games against tougher opponents away from home, then, Mourinho will need to find another way of dominating the central midfield battle. In big games, sacrificing either Lucas or Son, pushing Dele out to the flank and bringing in one of Tanguy Ndombele or Giovani Lo Celso might be the way to go.

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I write on a variety of subjects but specialize in English, European and South American soccer. For Forbes, I mostly write about two teams from my home city, Tottenham

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