Master’ Mourinho can outwit gung-ho Manchester United in a game of counter-attack chicken
Counter-attack football is an art. It might seem regressive to allow the opponent to take the initiative, but the best managers have the ability to manipulate the game, even influencing their opponent’s possession and passing patterns.
As with boxing’s ‘rope-a-dope’, you lure them in and then hit them with an incisive attack, precisely where you’re strong and they’re weak.
The very best coaches have a clarity of vision, too. They sell their game plan to the players. They can even convince world-class players, used to being more expressive and dominating possession, to buy into their strategy.
Jose Mourinho is the master at that and you can see the early signs of a talented team of Tottenham players buying into his methods.
Sunday’s game is a conundrum. What happens when neither side puts a premium on possession? Mourinho has never been overly bothered with that aspect of the game, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s best performances have been playing on the counter-attack. However, I suspect one may believe in the method more.
The strongest counter-attack platform will often rely on eight players being defensively minded. Or, even eight defensive plus one willing to engage in a defensive role as well as attack.
That’s an 8+1 man defensive block. Spurs are edging towards this, which Mourinho has used before with Chelsea when he had Arjen Robben and Damien Duff adopting defensive stances and then springing into attack.
The arrival of Gareth Bale is perfect for Mourinho — think, Bale for Robben and Son Heung-min for Duff. It moves his team towards a defensive 4-5-1 shape, which can then burst into a 4-3-3 attacking set-up.
People may not see those wingers as defensive players but it’s not about how much they track back. Rather, it’s about their positions when their team doesn’t have the ball.
Solskjaer has selected a team with a six-player defensive base and an attacking quartet — usually Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood. However, these players want to attack, not defend.
On paper, it looks progressive but I’m not so sure and my hunch is it’s a step too far. Here, United have four reluctant defenders — they all want to make the decisive attacking move.
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