Manchester United needs a win in the Premier League, particularly at Old Trafford, where, much like the Etihad, there has not been a league win since September. United, looking to edge their way into the top four, will relish the opportunity to gain ground on a side ahead of them, and this opportunity has been presented in the form of Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham Hotspur side, eliminated from the Champions League and not quite looking like themselves. However, Pochettino’s men are known for their intense pressing football, and can present a massive threat on any day, and as the pressure mounts on United for a win, Mourinho will need his key players to outfox Pochettino’s equivalents.
Toby Alderweireld, Central Defender, Tottenham Hotspur
I am incredibly enraged to this day that Louis van Gaal didn’t spend the peanuts required to sign Toby Alderweireld. On loan from Atletico at Southampton, Alderweireld formed a world class (that is not an exaggeration) alongside Jose Fonte, and while the latter was the leader, the former remains the outstanding defender. Alderweireld is incredible at everything- his passing range is almost unrivalled in the Premier League, he is solid in the air and on the ground, and his tackling ability has both finesse and grit. These attributes allow the Belgian to be versatile, often deployed at right-back for his country and in midfield during his time at Southampton.
That being said, he is definitely a central defender, and the best in the Premier League at that. Alderweireld averages 52 passes every 90 minutes from the heart of defence, famously assisting a Dele Alli poacher’s volley last season from his own half. United is presented with a tactical conundrum here, as Marcos Rojo or Daley Blind will be tasked with transitioning the ball as well as their Tottenham counterpart, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic has a big defensive battle to fight on Sunday.
Hugo Lloris, Goalkeeper, Tottenham Hotspur
There’s an adage that has been around for most of this season, saying the three best goalkeepers in the world are David De Gea, Manuel Neuer, and the away goalkeeper at Old Trafford. In my opinion, Lloris is clearly the second best goalkeeper in the Premier League behind United’s Spaniard, nominated for the Ballon d’Or in 2016.
While it would be unfair to label Tottenham a defensive side, their pressing system with two holding midfielders makes for the most efficient defensive unit in the Premier League, conceding just 10 goals in 14 games even with the lengthy absence of Alderweireld this season. Lloris plays a massive part in that statistic, emerging as a leader for Tottenham, and he is one of the experienced heads in the side who could lead the Spurs to the next level.
Antonio Valencia, Right-Back, Manchester United
Jose Mourinho already knows what happened last time Manchester United played Tottenham Hotspur. A world class performance from Timothy Fosu-Mensah was ended by injury before Tottenham completely overloaded the left side and scored three goals. Mourinho clearly rested Valencia for a reason, and the Ecuadorian will have to come out flying if United has any chance of keeping Spurs’ nightmare left-hand attack of Christian Eriksen and Danny Rose silent.
Emerging as one of the best right-backs out there this season, Valencia has used his experience and fitness to take his game to the next level, as apparent in his 7.34 WhoScored rating so far this season. As a key component in United’s attack and defence, Valencia would be an important player in any game, but in this game, there are tactical implications that United will need to treat with precautions.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Striker, Manchester United
In every single preview of this feature, I think I am yet to choose Zlatan Ibrahimovic, which is strange, because Zlatan always steals the show. On a serious note, though, the Swede has been on fire this month, proving his doubters wrong once again and scoring his 13th of the season against Zorya Luhansk on Thursday. Ibrahimovic doesn’t only offer goals, but also plays a massive part in United’s build-up play as somewhat of a false nine, dropping into spaces to search for players and depending on the overlapping runs of the forwards around him to occupy the opposition defence.
This explains why he worked so well with Edinson Cavani at PSG, and it also explains why Anthony Martial is the perfect winger for this system. But back on the topic of Ibrahimovic, he is truly one of the gems of world football at the age of 35. His proficiency in the air, winning over three aerial duels per match, has solved a problem that was so vital last season for United. In addition, despite enduring a poor-patch, Ibrahimovic has scored 13 goals in 19 starts for United this season. If Ibrahimovic can deliver in this match, he will have finally done it on the biggest stage for United, and tomorrow could be the right time to do so, in a match that could be lacking in end product.