How Tottenham used decoy runs to pull Manchester United’s structure apart

The most unique aspect of Ange Postecoglou’s Tottenham Hotspur side is the way he uses his central midfielders.

Like most players in those positions, they get through plenty of running — at Manchester United yesterday, Rodrigo Bentancur covered 12.3km (7.6 miles), the most of any player in the game. Oliver Skipp also played a very energetic role, with Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg sitting deeper than those two.

The nature of their running, though, is very unusual. More than any other side you’ll see, Tottenham’s central midfielders are charged with making decoy runs to create space for team-mates.

That was always likely to be a major feature of what ended as a 2-2 draw with United, whose midfielders often appear to be playing man-to-man. As Kobbie Mainoo and Christian Eriksen stuck tightly to Skipp and Bentancur, space opened up for others in white shirts to exploit.

Here’s the first example, eight minutes in.

Tottenham’s full-back pairing of Pedro Porro and Destiny Udogie have constantly popped up in central positions this season, largely because the players we’re accustomed to seeing in that zone are so willing to vacate it. Here, right-back Porro receives the ball in a narrow position. Bentancur is initially ahead of him, and then makes a run into the channel to take Mainoo away. Space opens up, and Porro can dribble on into the No 10 position.

Here’s a more overt example.

Cristian Romero is bringing the ball forward from the back. Bentancur is briefly at right-back, so has dragged Eriksen way out of the midfield zone. And then Skipp, noticing that Udogie has moved inside from left-back, makes a 25-yard lateral run from central midfield to the left. Mainoo follows him before eventually holding his ground, but his marking job has opened up space for Richarlison to drop into, and there’s a huge passing lane from Romero to the Brazilian striker.

On this occasion, though, Romero passes elsewhere.

Playing the ball into Richarlison after space opened up in midfield was a major part of Tottenham’s approach.

This next example is slightly different because it’s Porro who finds himself as the central midfielder, being closely marked by Eriksen. He makes a run into the channel, and Eriksen follows him all the way. This time, Romero does pass forward to Richarlison, and his first-time ball around the corner nearly finds Porro running in behind.

It’s a good job Eriksen follows him all the way because his interception is crucial.

Tottenham’s central midfielders also make sudden sprints towards the ball when they’re playing out from the back.

This isn’t technically a decoy run, as Bentancur did receive the ball from goalkeeper Guglielmo Vicario before playing it out to Romero, but look how much space the Bentancur created by dragging Eriksen out of the game.

The most crucial bursts, however, were Skipp’s decoy runs to create goalscoring chances.

Here, midway through the first half, debutant Timo Werner is in possession on the left. We know what Werner wants to do here — cut inside and shoot. But three United players are occupying the rough zone he wants to charge into. So Skipp’s run is crucial: he motors forward beyond Werner to take Mainoo away, and also distract Jonny Evans. Werner can now cut past Diogo Dalot into space and, although his eventual shot is wayward, this wasn’t a bad situation.

Something similar happened for Tottenham’s second equaliser.

After Romero breaks the lines with a good ball into Skipp, the midfielder’s pass to Werner is poor, forcing him wide. But again, Skipp makes a decoy run to open up space. And again, Mainoo follows his run, which leaves the zone on the edge of the box empty. Bentancur, Spurs’ other central midfielder, is the man to benefit.

Bentancur spots the space, points to it, and receives a simple pass from Werner in behind Mainoo, before slamming a shot into the net.

The hard-working Skipp sometimes offers little other than lots of running. But against this United man-marking, those runs were extremely useful.

Here, in the game’s closing stages, is yet another example of a Skipp run taking a central midfielder — Bruno Fernandes this time — out of the game to create space inside for a winger: Brennan Johnson. In fairness to them on this one, United got men around the ball and blocked the shot.

Here’s yet another Skipp run into the channel.

After playing the ball to Porro, he sprints in behind and takes Scott McTominay — on for Eriksen — completely out of the midfield zone. That creates space for Richarlison to drop into, dragging Lisandro Martinez out of the back.

Skipp ends up offside and gestures for Richarlison not to play the pass. But look at United’s defensive shape in the second screengrab below — centre-backs ahead of the full-backs, and McTominay suddenly playing sweeper.

Here’s a more complex example.

Again, we start with Romero in possession. Tottenham’s three central midfielders are in their natural positions, with United’s trio marking them closely. But then Hojbjerg makes an unusual run, all the way out to the right flank. Fernandes, while also trying to shut down Romero, follows him. Next, Skipp starts towards the far side but comes towards the ball, while Bentancur also heads towards the ball but moves away from it. Again, United’s midfielders follow.

All that has dragged United out of shape, and Johnson has a huge amount of space to move inside into.

A better move here would have been to take the ball on the half-turn and shift into the space in front of the United defence. Johnson instead plays it out to Hojbjerg, who probably wanted Porro to be making a run into the channel rather than holding the width.

And finally, an example of Spurs having created so much space between the lines that the two full-backs, Porro and Udogie, both find themselves in that zone, free for a forward pass from Bentancur.

Porro receives the ball, with Udogie ahead, but his ball in behind for Richarlison is overhit.

And that was Tottenham’s problem at Old Trafford on Sunday — they manipulated United excellently in midfield but, with so many player absences in the final third, lacked the individual quality of cohesion to make them pay. If James Maddison or Dejan Kulusevski were playing and finding space between the lines, or if Son Heung-min was making runs in behind, they would have been much more dangerous and probably more fluent.

But despite the absences of all of those players, plus midfielders Yves Bissouma and Pape Sarr, Tottenham’s structure remains solid and their rotations constantly drag teams apart. That demonstrates the quality of Postecoglou’s coaching.

(Top photo: MB Media/Getty Images)

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