This weekend, Tottenham make the trip to Old Trafford to face a Manchester United side whose form has been running in almost exactly the opposite direction to the North London team’s in the last few weeks.
With Spurs managing to hold Real Madrid in the oppressive atmosphere of the Bernabeu last week before dismantling Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool at the weekend, they will go into the game hoping that they can ease past a Manchester United who have been struggling in recent weeks to keep the points gap between themselves and Manchester City to five.
Manchester United, on the other hand, are more worried about heading the opposite direction in the league. With a disappointing draw to Stoke being swiftly followed by an even more disappointing loss to Huddersfield, they’ll be hoping that they can stem the flow of goals conceded whilst opening up the floodgates of goals scored.
With both points level on points, the winner will see clear air opening out between them and their opponents. More sobering is the fact that, whoever loses on Saturday, will be 8 points off the league leaders should Manchester City beat West Brom.
Jon Mackenzie looks at Three Key Battles that could determine the outcome of this must-win Premier League fixture.
Fernando Llorente vs Chris Smalling
With the news that Harry Kane has suffered a hamstring injury and so won’t be playing on Saturday, Jose Mourinho will be feeling as though his side have already taken an early lead. In Kane’s absence, the Spurs front line will be lead by summer signing Fernando Llorente.
On recent showings, despite the fact that Kane’s absence is far from ideal, Llorente has performed well for his new club, making a clear impact in their recent Champions League fixture against Real Madrid in which the points were shared.
However, it is important to remember that, having arrived at the club already injured, the Spaniard hasn’t had enough time to re-acclimatise to life in the Premier League. His four league appearances so far have all been off the bench and have only given rise to a combined 43 minutes game time for the former Juventus frontman.
Llorente was also played alongside Kane for his Champions League appearance and it will be interesting to see how well he plays as a lone striker at Old Trafford. With players in the form of Heung-Min Son and Dele Alli around him, though, he’ll be feeling confident that, with some strong hold-up play, he could have a positive effect on the game.
The task of keeping Llorente quiet will fall to Chris Smalling. Having missed the first five games of the Premier League, Smalling has slowly returned into the fold for the Manchester United defence following injuries to Phil Jones and Eric Bailly. Worryingly for United fans, though, in the three full games that he has appeared in, his team have beaten bottom of the table Crystal Palace, drawn with a Liverpool who the other top 4 sides have been thumping and lost to a Huddersfield who, despite their organisational qualities, should not be causing Manchester United the sorts of problems they did.
With Llorente likely to bring a physical side to the game on Saturday, Smalling will have to make sure he gives back as good as he gets. The Spaniard’s hold up play will put the England international a little bit betwixt and between: expected to play tight to the striker whilst having to track the runs of Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen in behind him. This will be a real test of Chris Smalling’s real place in this Manchester United team – a poor performance could see him gradually phased out of the side.
David de Gea vs Hugo Lloris
In recent weeks, both teams have relied on their respective goalkeepers for results. In their 0-0 draw at Anfield, Manchester United were kept in the game by de Gea, whose save from Joel Matip at close range proved to be vital to their sharing of the points. For Spurs, without Hugo Lloris in the net, it is unlikely that they would have kept Real Madrid at bay for the full 90 minutes. A point-blank header from Karim Benzema looked all but in but for the reflexes of France’s first-choice keeper.
Whilst both of these keepers have played a similar number of minutes this season – de Gea playing 90 minutes more – the stats reveal a clear difference between them in terms of their roles on their respective teams. David de Gea remains the consummate shot-stopper, having made 20 saves in the Premier League so far, three of them coming, most notably, from his feet in his trademark move.
Hugo Lloris, on the other hand, has only been called upon to make a save 9 times – one time more than Ederson, who has faced the fewest saves in a comparative number of games. Lloris, though, has a much-improved distribution percentage to the Spain international, finding teammates 78% of the time as opposed to his opponent who has only managed to complete 64% of his passes.
This, then, is likely to be decided by the way these two goalkeepers play – albeit in entirely different areas. Manchester United will be relying on David de Gea to keep a clean sheet against a prolific Spurs attack. For Tottenham, though, Hugo Lloris is expected to perform a distributive function on the team in addition to his shot-stopping duties.
Nemanja Matic vs Christian Eriksen
When he arrived at Manchester United in the summer after a £40 million transfer, Nemanja Matic was heralded as the key that would unlock the door for Jose Mourinho’s new look team. With Matic supposedly freeing up Paul Pogba for a more attacking role, Matic has spent the last few weeks holding the fort on his own in the Frenchman’s absence.
This weekend, Matic will be expected to keep the mercurial Christian Eriksen at bay. This is a task that the Serbian is suited to, having won 45 duels in the league so far this season – the 18th highest number of duels won by a player.
Of these, 17 were tackles that prevented take-ons of which Matic has a success rate of 81%. Coming up against the twinkle-toed Dane, Matic will be expecting to put his defensive skills to the test. If he can keep Eriksen quiet, he will likely stultify Spurs’ attacking play.
Christian Eriksen, though, is in the form of his life. With three goals to his name, along with two assists, Eriksen is an important outlet for Spurs. However, his role is not simply as goal scorer or assister – the Danish midfielder is fundamental to the way that Spurs break down teams, looking for space, drawing players out of position and playing delicate balls through that players like Harry Kane and Dele Alli thrive on.
If Manchester United follow the preferred methods of their manager and sit deep on Saturday, then Eriksen’s creativity will be key to Spurs chances of coming away with all three points.
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