When Tottenham Hotspur face Manchester United on Sunday, it will be a match of mystery.
Both teams come into this game having been free-scoring during the festive period. Like with most free-scoring runs of form, there’s a degree of fortune to it. Tottenham scored 11 goals from 15 shots on target against Everton and Bournemouth (an incredible 73.3 per cent) while United scored 9 of their 14 shots on target against Cardiff and Bournemouth (64.2 per cent).
This is a clear departure from the average, where around a third of shots on target become goals (as was the case when United faced Huddersfield, putting three past the Terriers from 11 shots on target).
As such, it makes it difficult to gauge where each side is at the moment.
What’s each team’s baseline quality?
Tottenham are trying to find their new way, with a much-changed midfield. The all-round, all-action figure of Mousa Dembele looks set for China, having aged terribly in the past six to ten months. Victor Wanyama, the second-most assured defensive midfielder in the squad, has barely been fit this season at all.
Meanwhile, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s United haven’t really had a thorough test. Cardiff, Huddersfield, a poor Bournemouth, Newcastle and Reading in the FA Cup is a very easy run. If Solskjaer’s side had failed to win four, if not all five, of these matches then it would have looked worrying, but having been victorious in all of them doesn’t necessarily mean much.
Worryingly for United, they’ve conceded chances worth 1.0 or more expected goals in three of those four league games. Against Bournemouth, you might expect this, but not Cardiff or Newcastle. It’s been reported that the attacking players at the club have enjoyed being freed of defensive duties under the interim manager… but maybe they shouldn’t have been.
Under Solskjaer, United have conceded seven shots from open play on the right-hand side of their box, from the edge of the six-yards to the edge of eighteen-yards. On their left-hand defensive side, they’ve only conceded one in this area. They seem to be noticeably weaker defensively down their own right inside channel.
Speculation, speculation, speculation
In the outside world, the game may well be overshadowed by speculation that Mauricio Pochettino could be the next permanent Manchester United manager.
“The speculation is there for a reason,” Solskjaer said in his pre-match press conference, “because he’s done well [at Tottenham].”
Solskjaer himself has been linked to the permanent position, despite being essentially ‘on loan’ from Norwegian team Molde. He’s been winning over the fans, as well as the attackers, with his style of play.
“They are one of best teams in the league so we have to be aware of their strengths,” he said. “But I have been brought up on the need to attack teams. That is our strength going forward, attacking – we have to.
“We are not going to get as many chances to attack against them as we had before so when we have the ball we have to be ready to play well and use the whole pitch because Wembley is a decent size.”
That desire to attack could well leave United open at the back, especially considering their performances against lesser teams so far.
Solskjaer and co will have to take solace from Tottenham’s poor showing against Wolves just before the turn of the year, where they lost 3-1 and barely produced any chances of note. Before that, the other side of the demolitions of Everton and Bournemouth, Spurs produced just three shots on target against Burnley.
Tottenham’s recent form shows that they’re capable of incredible highs and disappointing lows. United’s shows that they’re definitely better than some bad teams, but who knows how they’ll fare against a genuinely good one. And amidst it all is the narrative of who will be in the Old Trafford dugout next season, as well as how long Tottenham will have to use Wembley as their home stadium. Mysteries everywhere. Although you’d expect goals.
*odds subject to change