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Of all the games this Premier League weekend, Tottenham hosting Manchester United looks the most intriguing.
Narrative! Oh, the narrative. Carl Anka has got narrative coming out of his ears, not least Jose Mourinho managing against his former club and nation’s sweetheart Marcus Rashford returning to fitness.
“There’s Paul Pogba too, and Anthony Martial,” Carl said on the Totally Football Show. “There’s at least three people of an attacking persuasion at Manchester United returning, that have something to prove to their former manager Mr Mourinho, and I’m very excited for that.
“There’s so much personal intrigue: how is Kane going to respond from his long lay-off? How Son’s going to respond? Marcus Rashford too? He won’t start on Saturday but how might Pogba play with Bruno Fernandes, and how much running will that unfortunate third person in midfield have to cope with? Can everyone remember that Harry Maguire is Manchester United captain all of a sudden? Is David de Gea still United’s best goalkeeper? There are so many great storylines.”
Duncan Alexander added: “Fred has been the most underrated player in the Premier League this season, in some respects – he’s their most creative player in raw numbers, and Mourinho bigged up Scott McTominay as their player of the season. I think that’s why Pogba will start on the bench.”
Tottenham could be the team that has benefitted the most from the coronavirus-enforced break in play, and the Athletic’s Tottenham correspondent Charlie Eccleshare noted that they are in much better shape than before lockdown, when they had been booted out of the Champions League by RB Leipzig and lost two of their last three Premier League games.
“They’re in a better position because they have four pretty important players back,” said Charlie. “When the play stopped in mid-March there was a slight Sunday league element to it – “who’s playing up front this week, because we don’t really have a striker?” They were rooting around trying to find someone, because Harry Kane was out, Son Heung-min was out, Steven Bergwijn was out – all three of them are back, and Moussa Sissoko is also back.
“It doesn’t feel quite as pessimistic as back then, when it sort of felt like they were waiting for the knockout blow to be delivered.”
One small set-back is that Dele Alli will be suspended for the United game, due to a one-match ban for an ill-advised tweet back in February. But there’s even an upside to that:
“In the short-term it may slightly simplify what could’ve been a dilemma for Mourinho – whether to go for a 4-2-3-1, or a 4-3-3 – I suspect he’ll now go for a 4-3-3 with two wide forwards playing off Kane.”
So things are looking up for Mourinho and Tottenham.
“Like a pre-season, when you don’t have a game for so long you can look at the positives and think “you know what…maybe we can do something here,” said Charlie. “Covering Tottenham I have completely fallen into that trap, because I do think maybe they can do something.
“It does seem extraordinary to me that if they win that game against United, they can go one point off the top five, which at the moment is Champions League qualification. That might sound a little desperate at the moment because it’s a big ‘if’, but it just seemed so far off back in March, whereas now it doesn’t seem so crazy.
“The game on Friday is so, so big: we could be saying “no, their season’s over”, or we could be saying “they really have a shot.” I certainly think there is some room for optimism.”
They will need that optimism too, given how important making the Champions League is for them.
“It’s hugely important: they are a club who proportion-wise, are hugely reliant on match day revenue. The business model on that new stadium was so predicated on there not just being matches but from gigs, from rugby, from boxing, from NFL – it was going to be this all singing, all dancing venue, not just a football ground. That’s obviously all gone, and it’s hit them very hard and they were very quick to recognise that.
“They were fortunate in that a lot of their players are signed to long-term contracts, so they wouldn’t be bullied into selling them like some teams might would be.
“The pandemic has exposed the pretty shaky foundations of the Premier League, so the Champions League is so important for them, Arsenal too: it’s going to be an even more tense race perhaps, than ever.”
Perhaps the key thing though, is something that we might otherwise have taken for granted with a Jose Mourinho side.
“The other big question is whether Mourinho has managed to sort out Tottenham’s defence. We’ve talked about those four attacking players coming back, but that’s not really been their problem: they’ve only kept three clean sheets in 26 games under Mourinho, which is remarkable from what we expect from him: to go into a club, have a full pre-season and tighten up the defence. He hasn’t had that pre-season, but now he’s had a two or three month period, albeit not all on the training ground.
“They’re not going get into the Champions League just by scoring more goals – they’ll get into the Champions League by defending better. There are so many questions over formerly reliable defenders like Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen, you just don’t know what to expect from them anymore.”
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