After a victory against Liverpool at Anfield, United returned to Old Trafford looking to secure another victory in an attempt to push on towards the top four.


In: Borthwick-Jackson.
Out: Young.


  • Southampton have played a 3 man defence and a 3-4-2-1 shape recently. In response Van Gaal chose to pretty much mirror this shape. Why?
  • To make this shape work the wingbacks have to function well; they are critical. United’s wingbacks did not function well so the strategy didn’t work.
  • Both teams were poor, cancelling each other out. They both created little and struggled in their build up play. The difference was that Southampton got lucky with a late goal.
  • Fellaini had a really poor first half and was replaced at half time by Mata with Herrera dropping deeper to accommodate the change. Mata started brightly but faded.
  • The advantage of a 3-4-1-2 is two in attack, but Rooney and Martial played too far apart and United’s combination play in the final third suffered as a consequence; it was often disjointed.


Van Gaal’s selection for this game featured only one change from the side that triumphed at Anfield; and that due to an injury to Ashley Young. In terms of formation however there was a complete change of direction to a shape utilising a back three. The three were Smalling in the middle, Blind to the left and Darmian to the right. Ahead of them were the two defensive midfield players flanked by players operating as wingbacks; Borthwick Jackson on the left and Lingard on the right. Herrera operated as a number 10 behind the two strikers, Rooney and Martial. We describe this formation in full as we feel this was a significant reorganisation of the side.

1st half  BJ

United’s first half shape and Borthwick-Jackson playing as a wing back

The question is why reorganize in this way? It doesn’t appear to be as a consequence of the injury to Young, or United’s on-going fullback injury crisis. United could have chosen to go with a back four with Borthwick-Jackson and Darmian operating as traditional fullback and Lingard as a more attacking wide player. Southampton have operated with a back three and a 3-4-2-1 shape in recent matches and maybe this has more to do with United’s change of strategy? Was Van Gaal concerned that United’s usual 4-2-3-1 shape would see a lone central striker failing to make an impact against a back three; did he want to go with a shape that allowed him to employ two central strikers whom he considered would have more impact upon Southampton’s back three.

Average positions - note positions of Borthwick-Jackson and Lingard as wingbacks. They never really came forward enough to support attacks.

Average positions – note positions of Borthwick-Jackson and Lingard as wingbacks. They never really came forward enough to support attacks.

This is a possibility but if this was the reason why did Rooney and Martial each position themselves so wide, Rooney on the left and Martial usually on the right. This meant that they were too far apart and could not operate as a pair; in effect this meant that they were operating as two single strikers. When Southampton had the ball at the back Martial and Rooney stayed wide, occupying the Van Dijk and Bertrand whilst Herrera pressed through the middle onto Fonte. This was fine in theory but Southampton’s wingbacks and their defensive midfield pair worked hard to support the back three who were able to play around this press. United needed Lingard and Borthwick-Jackson to push on and force Mane and Tadic back. Unfortunately the United pair are not practiced wingbacks and they stayed too deep.

Perhaps Van Gaal chose this shape as he wanted to ensure that despite employing two strikers he would not be outnumbered in the middle of the park. In that sense the reorganisation worked with Herrera dropping deeper to form a central three with Schneidelrin and Fellaini whenever Southampton came forward. He could have gone for a 4-4-2 with a diamond and controlled the centre of the pitch in that way but perhaps he was concerned that if he did this Southampton’s wide players would have had opportunities to exploit space against our fullbacks. The traditional would have been a more traditional 4-4-2 but then we would have often found United 2 against Southampton’s 4. We say Southampton’s 4 because Southampton’s shape was subtly different as a 3-4-1-2. As it was the two sides cancelled each other out in the first half being effectively as bad as each other; neither team created much and both teams struggled to string passing sequences together. In fact both side often struggled to get out of their own half.

Ander Herrera - struggled to link play in the final third with Rooney and Martial too far apart

Ander Herrera – struggled to link play in the final third with Rooney and Martial too far apart

There are only a couple of other things to say. By switching to a very similar shape to that employed by Southampton United were effectively surrendering the initiative. Shouldn’t a United side playing at home set the agenda and so make the opposition worry about our strategy? The point here is that as mentioned above Southampton have been played in their shape for some time, so they are practiced in this strategy. On the other hand United were being asked to adapt to an approach altered from that which they usually employ. Put simply Southampton were better at it than United and there players, notably their wingbacks but also the Wanyama and Claise seemed to know what to do, and when and where to run to make the system work. United’s didn’t.

That’s the second point really, to make any strategy work you need the right players with the necessary attributes and on this showing the United players clearly lacked the attributes required here. The back three did okay, but then they only had to deal with Shane Long as a sole striker. Our wingbacks were too deep and so did not supply attacking width. They also therefore allowed Tadic and Mane to move forward. Schnedierlin and Fellaini were too deep and too static to help develop play and Martial and Rooney as previously mentioned were too wide apart to operate as a pair.

Halftime 0-0, with both United and Southampton having played poorly, (perhaps with Southampton this was caution), and with both teams having created almost nothing.


At halftime Van Gaal replaced Fellaini (who had been poor) with Mata. Mata positioned himself in the number 10 position behind the strikers with Herrera dropping deeper alongside Schneiderlin. If United were to persevere with the first half shape this was the logical move to make. With Herrera in a deeper role he could be relied upon to be more mobile and adventurous than Fellaini and so would help to develop play in the way Fellaini had not. There is always a concern with Herrera that he runs about a lot and in doing so lacks positional discipline which can leave holes. This is the opposite of Fellaini however and if Schnseiderlin could be relied upon to “watch the shop” could have been what United needed. Mata tended to play closer to Rooney and Martial who played narrower and so closer to each other. This allowed space on the right for Lingard to advance and for the first fifteen minutes of the second half United looked much more purposeful and with Mata passing the ball forward things looked more optimistic.

2nd half  MATA

United’s shape early in the second half and Juan Mata, introduced at half time

Then Darmian picked up a head injury as he jumped to head away a cross as Southampton broke. As a consequence Van Gaal introduced McNair on 60 minutes. The shape stayed the same with McNair replacing Darmian as the right sided defender in the three. This change seemed to knock United out of their tentative, improved stride and so the improvement at the start of the second half came to nothing.

For a while now the game returned to its first half pattern until Koeman , the Southampton manager decided to make a few changes of his own. On 67minutes he made a double substitution introducing Romeu and Ward-Prowse for Claise and Tadic. Ward-Prowse particularly seemed to push forward more and Southampton who had already begun to look dangerous on the break. Southampton however often struggled to get player forward to support their lone front runner Long. They did however look as if they might snatch something and so Koeman made another change on 79 minutes introducing new signing Charlie Austin in an attempt to provide greater forward prescence, (Long is a busy player but he is more like an annoying wasp than anything and doesn’t really provide a physically strong presence).

Through the middle period of the half United looked at their most dangerous through Lingard and McNair. Despite playing as one of the three dedicated defenders McNair took a number of opportunities when there was space in front of him to run forward. Unfortunately as is often the case delivery from wide areas was poor and usually over-hit.

Late winner for Southampton

Late winner for Southampton

United fans were crying out for Van Gaal to make a change as the game seemed to be petering out into a 0-0 draw. On 86 minutes Van Gaal made that change introducing Januzaj in place of Borthwick-Jackson. This was generally well received by the crowd who had been singing the Belgian’s name for some time. Unfortunately one of his first acts was to commit a totally unnecessary foul on Long, bundling the Southampton player over near United’s bye-line. This gave Southampton a position slightly better than a corner. A good delivery Austin rise in the box to head home a debut goal in the 87th minute.

United now threw Smalling forward as a target, (having removed Fellaini at half time he was the best option for this), but to no avail and the game ended a disappointing 0-1.


After a recent run of more encouraging results this was a really disappointing result and more significantly performance. The question is why did Van Gaal chose to change the team shape to mirror Southampton’s?

Presumably this was about putting two forwards against Southampton’s back three to address concerns that a single striker in United’s usual 4-2-3-1 shape might have minimal impact against a three. The problem was that the two had minimal impact as well. Rooney and Martial positioned themselves in wide positions close to the wider players in Southampton’s defensive line. United’s number 10 was then expected to push onto the middle defender. Unfortunately this didn’t work. There was too much space between the front two and combination play in the final third was poor. In the second half Mata replaced Herrera in the number 10 role and he concentrated more on attempts to create rather than specifically pushing onto the defensive line. This didn’t help significantly; the space between United’s forwards remained an issue.

Match statistics

Match statistics

The problem with mirroring someone else’s usual strategy is that they are more practiced in it. It was noticeable that Southampton’s wingbacks were far more effective than United’s and their two deep midfield players worked harder and were more flexible in their movement and positioning meaning that they were more able to develop play. They didn’t play well but they held their own and in choosing to mirror Southampton’s shape United had effectively surrenders the initiative and allowed Southampton to set the agenda.