Talk to Tottenham players and all of them speak of how much conditioning work they’ve done under Mauricio Pochettino, something that has surely contributed both to the number of late goals they’ve scored this season and to the fact that Spurs aren’t missing a single player through injury.
Manchester United, meanwhile, are through the worst of their injury crisis and are missing just Robin van Persie and Ashley Young through injury, although Angel Di Maria and Jonny Evans are both suspended. Luke Shaw, who returned from a hamstring injury for the FA Cup defeat to Arsenal but was taken off at half-time, should be available.
The 0-0 draw at White Hart Lane on December 28 was a game that’s puttered and flickered and never quite caught light, and the sense then was of two teams just beginning to adjust to life under their new managers. In retrospect, although United are three points clear of Spurs in the table, it’s probably Pochettino who feels his side are closer to being what he wants them to be.
In Ddcember, United played with a back three, with Wayne Rooney in midfield and Juan Mata operating behind Van Persie and Falcao and had the better of the first hour or so of the game, being denied only by a couple of goal-line clearances and some excellent goalkeeping from Hugo Lloris. Spurs, though, became increasingly dangerous as the game went on. It’s safe to assume on Sunday that Spurs will retain a similar 4-2-3-1 shape while the United line-up will look very different.
THE UNITED PARADOX
What’s happening at Manchester United this season is mystifying. On the one hand they’re manifestly not playing well: there’s no consistency or fluidity to their play, and they seem to squander possession with a bewildering frequency. And yet at the same time results have largely been good: unconvincing as they’ve been, they’ve lost just twice in the league since the beginning of November.
They’re five points better off than at the same stage last season, which at least suggests some kind of progress. And yet this is not a United in which anybody can have any kind of faith. Their defeat to Arsenal on Monday – their first to Arsene Wenger’s side at Old Trafford since 2006 – didn’t come as a great surprise. The flaws are too evident; at some point somebody was always going to take advantage.
NEW INFOGRAPHIC: United vs Spurs - The Vital Stats Explained
SPURS’ RECENT FORM
Spurs have played 47 games this season, more than any other side in the Premier League, and, impressive as their fitness has been, it’s inevitable that a little fatigue has crept in. Certainly in their last three league games – the 2-2 draw with West Ham, the 2-1 win over QPR and the 3-2 win over Swansea City – Spurs have lacked spark. In that regard the elimination from the Europa League (and before it the FA Cup) may end up being of benefit. They will, after all, have had eight days off before the match at Old Trafford.
There comes a point at which changing formation every week ceases to be about impressive tactical flexibility and becomes about indecisiveness; Louis van Gaal has perhaps reached that point. The back three hasn’t been sighted since the 2-0 win at QPR on January 17, so it seems likely he will start with a back four, although with Daley Blind operating at the back of midfield and Luis Antonio Valencia and Luke Shaw at full-back, the back four often operates effectively as a back three.
With no Di Maria or Van Persie, it looks like either Rooney starting as a lone forward, or Falcao coming in from the cold. Marouane Fellaini will then presumably look to get forward to support one or both, although it’s hard to imagine Jan Vertonghen being intimidated by his compatriot’s aerial threat. The problem then is a lack of width: Mata could play wide but other than him the only real option is the out-of-sorts Adnan Januzaj. Given Tottenham’s one glaring weakness at the moment is a lack of defensive capacity at full-back, that could be a vital shortcoming.
Tottenham may be weary, but they’ve had time to rest and they look a far more cohesive side at the moment than United, which makes the 4.15 available on them to win on Sunday look extremely tempting. It’s probably wisest, though, to proceed with some caution and to back them +0.5 on the Asian line at 1.92