After a cup win at Yeovil United returned to Old Trafford for a potentially testing fixture against Southampton. 3rd against 4th; United were looking to stretch their lead over the visitors in the table to 4 points. Southampton on the other hand could leapfrog United if they won. This game was a genuine “six-pointer”.


In: Valencia, Jones, Blind, Carrick, Mata, di Maria and van Persie.
Out: McNair, Blackett, Rafael, Herrera, Fletcher, Falcao and Wilson.


  • Van Gaal made seven changes from the starting eleven at Yeovil. Was this too many? It was a surprise to see Blind and di Maria start after prolonged lay-offs.
  • United had 60.7% possession but created very few chances and ended up with a grand total of zero shots on target.
  • This was a tight game with very little space. Southampton’s response to United’s press was to hit the ball long; United retained the ball with short passing moves but often struggled to move the ball over the half way line. Southampton simple sat a little deeper and let the United defenders have plenty of the ball.
  • United’s methodical, measured play was often too slow and they were certainly far too slow in moving the ball forward away from their own defensive third. Southampton played a disciplined game and effectively mugged United but the pace at which United moved the ball towards the Southampton goal helped the visitors retain their shape.
  • Di Maria was played as a forward here; under van Gaal he has played in several positions and it is not certain that the manager has decided yet how to get the best out of him. Whilst he struggled in this game to be fair he will need a few games to get his “match rhythm” back after his injury lay-off.
  • Rooney had a disappointing game in midfield after improved performances in this role recently.
  • This match saw the return of several early season weaknesses in United’s play, notably that aforementioned failure to move the ball forward early from the back, but also wilting in the second half. As United wilted after about an hour Southampton stepped up, pressed higher and caught United.


Although van Gaal made seven changes from the starting eleven in the previous game the strategy remained largely unchanged. That strategy was based upon a three man defence with two forwards. But rather than 3-4-1-2, this was more of a 3-3-2-2 with Carrick sitting in front of the three man defence and the wingbacks alongside him. Ahead of them was Mata, playing deeper than usual to the right and Rooney to the left. Di Maria and van Persie were the front two. Southampton utilized a 4-2-3-1 shape. The two pivots, Schneiderlin and Wanyama stayed in position in front of Alderweireld, (replaced by Gardos on 21minutes) and Fonte. These four did not move much and were able to go man-to-man when necessary with United’s front four. Pelle led the line whilst the fullbacks and the three behind Pelle were prepared to move more in response to the game situation.

chalkboard United player influence

The game started with some sloppy play from United, Blind playing on the left side of United’s back three was caught high and Southampton forged a shooting chance which Clyne, advancing on the Southampton right put wide. Caught out of position Blind was unable to get back.

After this the game settled into a pattern. United had difficulties moving the ball out from the back. Southampton stood off the United back three allowing them to have plenty of the ball. It was as if Koeman had decided that these players could not hurt his side. Instead Southampton dropped slightly deeper and crowded the space around Carrick. As a consequence United had a lot of possession in their own half being very slow to move the ball up the pitch. As the game wore on Mata and Rooney came deeper to try to overcome this problem, but this just left van Persie and di Maria more isolated. This was generally a tight game with very little space. When Southampton had the ball at the back in contrast to Southampton’s strategy United pressed. Southampton’s response to United’s press was to hit the ball long; United retained the ball with short passing moves and that is why they had the larger share of possession, 60% over the whole match, but they didn’t hurt Southampton and  United failed to have a shot on target in the first half and in fact throughout the entire match.

United action areas, minimal impact in the final third

United action areas, minimal impact in the final third

There are a couple of issues to raise about United’s play in this game.

Firstly until he was replaced on 72 minutes Di Maria was played as a forward, very high, in fact most of time he was just behind van Persie. This experiment didn’t work. He struggled to make an impact against a fresh alert Southampton.

Di Maria dashboard        key

His pass completion rate in the game was a low 60% across 20 passes, (two of which were kick-offs). This compares with van Persie, his forward partner’s, completion rate of 80% across 16 passes, (one of which was a kick-off). He is a great player but clearly needs a few games to get back to his best.

di Maria's passing

di Maria’s passing

We would question whether the position in which he was deployed here suits him? His pace and runs trouble people and pull teams out of shape, but when utilized in an advanced position the space to run often isn’t there.

The second issue is that with Southampton two central defenders and deep midfield pivots dominating the centre of the park and picking up United’s front four our wingbacks needed to get forward to stretch Southampton across a wide attacking front. This didn’t happen often enough with Valencia and Shaw having poor games. Shaw hardly took a man on all game, Valencia was slightly more adventurous but was fairly ineffective. The three in Southampton’s 4-2-3-1 plus Pelle dropped fairly deep crowding Carrick and  blocking the wingbacks. The wingbacks needed to push on past the outside players in the three and effectively push the two Southampton fullbacks back.

The consequence of all this was that the game reached half time at 0-0 with United dominating possession but with their passing slow and measured they failed to trouble Southampton in the final third.


The second half started in much the same pattern as the first half and nothing significant changed in the first fifteen minutes. Then around the hour mark there was a flurry of substitutions. First on 61minutes Herrera replaced van Persie who had picked up a knock on his ankle. Rooney now moved to play as a forward with Herrera dropping into Rooney’s position in midfield. Team shape did not change. Southampton then made a change on 63 minutes with Tadic replacing Elia behind Pelle. Lastly on 64 minutes Blackett replaced Shaw who was probably tiring after his return from injury; in truth he had had a disappointing game.

None of these changes altered either teams shape although Southampton now asserted themselves and United simply failed to respond. Basically the visitors started to press higher pushing on to the United back line. Within minutes they had caught United and took the lead. Southampton pressed and won the ball in the United half; United’s defence was out of position, you could have thrown a blanket over four players as Southampton shot. The first shot came back off the post but ran for Tadic to calmly slot the ball home past de Gea into the corner of the net. The goal came on 69 minutes. United had 21 minutes to save the game.

Within a couple of minutes van Gaal made a change removing di Maria and introducing Fellaini. Fellaini played high almost as a forward and United now started to play early long balls in his direction. They had some success with this and might have snatched an equalizer from one of several chances which came from knock-downs. Unfortunately they lacked composure in front of goal and didn’t even get any of their shots on target. It is also fair to say that the long balls were played forward so early that United struggled to support Fellaini in and around the penalty area.

United shots, none on target!

United shots, none on target!

This change of strategy did however illustrate an interesting point. For most of the game United were far too slow to move the ball forward. Southampton defended with great discipline and the pace of United’s forward progression failed cause significant problems. Late in the game when United moved the ball forward quickly, however crude the execution Southampton did look at their most uncomfortable and it did create chances.

Ultimately it was not enough.


This was a poor performance by United, they controlled possession but their passing was often too slow and they were far too slow in moving the ball forward. Why?

Poor or at least ineffective performances by a number of key players and a failure to stretch the opposition wide are the answers. Possession isn’t everything and patience isn’t always a virtue. Only after going a goal behind did United start to move the ball forward more quickly and this was often in the form of a long ball towards substitute Fellaini. This created a number of chances which with the rub of the green and a little more composure might have seen United snatch a late equalizer. This change of strategy felt like desperation however.

general stats

United lost their way from about the hour point. Earlier in the season this problem occurred when we were employing a 4-4-2 diamond but by the hour mark they were in the lead; here it was still 0-0. At about this point Southampton started to press higher, catching United and after a turnover of possession in the our half Southampton scored.

Southampton played a disciplined game and effectively outfoxed the home side, they were worth their win. United saw plenty of the ball but generally in areas where they were unlikely to hurt the visitors. Possession alone is not enough.