Almost as quickly as the ‘Pochettino to Manchester United’ rumours appeared they have vanished again from the discourse.
Coverage of Tottenham games return to the games themselves and the Argentine’s initial vague dancing around the subject is replaced by expressing a will to remain in North London for as many as ‘twenty years’ – a similar statement of confidence to ones he has made in the past.
Perhaps the performances of the club under caretaker Ole Gunnar Solskjær, albeit against lesser opposition, has lead the United board to readdress and cool their interest?
Of particular note has been the improvement of Paul Pogba since Mourinho got the sack. Many wanted to see the Frenchman operating a role in a three man-midfield with less defensive responsibility. Jose dismissed those he sarcastically labelled ‘experts’ as a over-simplifying yet here we are witnessing the positive effects of such a move.
Of course there is more to the transformation than just one player. Solskjær asks his nominally recognised wingers to move narrow and has his full-backs pushing on to instead provide the width. With his attackers closer together and also closer to goal, United now make quick vertical combinations and runs to get through defences.
The loanee manager also has the Red Devils defending further up the pitch highlighted by United’s pressing metric, Passes Allowed Per Defensive Action, falling favourably from 10.09 to 7.99. The sample of opposition here though means we can’t be certain it is proof of a functioning pressing system.
Sunday’s game can be uncomfortably dressed up as a shootout for the United job but Spurs fans will still be very keen to see three points and Pochettino will see the opportunities to find them in the above tweaks.
United’s staggered horizontal positioning is a useful tool for opening up lesser, defensive sides but it may make them a little easy to suffocate for Tottenham, especially in their own narrow diamond formation that has seen heavy use this season.
The press is another battle which Spurs will be hoping to come out of on top, with far greater experience under their current manager. Again the diamond shape puts a man on each of United’s midfielders. Solskjær’s build-up game is based on playing against the three lines of defence of a flat 4-4-2 rather than the five offered by the 4-1-2-1-2.
Molde have a nice way of building up v a 442 block, using a 2-4-3-1
They leave the CBs free with one of the 2 DMs playing between the 2 with the other on the outside, effectively narrowing the front 2 pressing and leaving space on the outside.
This is combined with high wide FBs pic.twitter.com/Bm63jJDyuI
— Stevie Grieve (@Steviegrieve) December 30, 2018
The worry for Pochettino comes in the head-to-head battle between Moussa Sissoko and Pogba. Poch has become legendary for his coaching transformations of both raw youngsters and older underachievers. None stand out quite as much as the uptick in performance from Sissoko this season yet for all his stratospheric improvements a clash against Pogba remains not only a mismatch but a scary one at that.
The final key battle to keep an eye open for is one of pace between Son and United’s left-sided centre-back – likely to be Phil Jones. The early ball over the top into the right channel has been key for Spurs over the last few weeks and they will be looking to make use of it one final time before Son leaves for the Asian Cup.