MANCHESTER UNITED vs SOUTHAMPTON
After the win at Bournemouth United returned to Old Trafford for their first home fixture and to play on a Friday night. After serving his suspension, carried over from his time in Italy, this game provided an opportunity for Paul Pogba to make his returning debut; a mouth-watering prospect for United fans but who if anybody would make way after so many great individual performances on the south coast.
- A good attacking display and a solid defensive display. United’s play hasn’t quite clicked yet but signs are there that it will and we did enough here to win.
- Fellaini had another excellent game; at Bournemouth he was the more likely of the deep midfield players to push on with Herrera screening the defence. Here Fellaini tended to be the one staying deep allowing Pogba to push on. Another good performance demonstrating his versatility.
- Paul Pogba! He was everywhere. Always available, his strong languid style always seeming to allow him time. He looked confident and comfortable in midfield, pushing the ball around and probing, then occasionally taking people on and in so doing pulling Southampton’s defensive shape about.
- Zlatan will get the credit for the goals of course and fair play to him. The second was a standard penalty, the first another header coming in from the far post behind the defender as a cross was delivered from wide on the right (as at the Community Shield). This is a clear pattern emerging. Zlatan is intelligent, when that ball moves wide he adjusts his position very subtly so defenders find it hard to keep track of him. What a leap! He was born for this.
- There were other good displays from Valencia, Martial and Mata. Valencia appears to have been given instruction to attack his fullback and with Mata coming narrow again there is plenty of space to do that. Martial produced a couple of his trademark diagonal runs inside in the second half and should have scored from at least one of them. Martial and Mata also worked hard in defence and were a big part of why despite plenty of possession Southampton didn’t hurt United.
After much speculation in the days before this game Herrera was the player to make way for Paul Pogba making his full United debut, (all his appearances in his first spell at the club were as a substitute). United lined up in a 4-2-3-1 shape with Fellaini being repositioned on the right of the deep midfield two so allowing Pogba to feature on his preferred left side of midfield. At Bournemouth Fellaini was the player pushing on with Herrera sitting deep. Here Fellaini tended to sit as the deepest of the pair with Pogba pushing on. Credit to Felliani; he adjusted to this well.
United’s first half shape with Paul Pogba making his full debut
The pattern of the game was set very early. Southampton had the larger share of possession. They were formed up as a 4-4-2 with a diamond in midfield and this allowed them to retain the ball. United dropped back and so although Southampton circulated the ball at a good tempo they didn’t create that much. They tended to look more threatening when a transition allowed them an opportunity to break quickly. If United were in their defensive shape there appeared little danger. That defensive shape involved Mata and Martial sitting narrow alongside Felaini and Pogba and leaving space out wide which the Southampton fullbacks could run into. They delivered several good crosses from this area and with a little more luck would have scored. United when they got hold of the ball were more direct, showing urgency to get the ball forward towards the opponents final third. Then Martial and to a lesser extent Mata would move wider, (on occasions Valencia did this with Mata staying narrow). Pogba would push forward and Fellaini would sit deeper. This meant that overall Southampton had more of the ball, whilst United had more of the threat.
As at Bournemouth United often transformed into this shape with Mata coming narrow, Pogba pushing on and either Ibrahimovic or Rooney dropping towards the number 10 space. This meant that both teams had very roughly the same shape and tended to cancel each other out in the opening half. When this happens the fullbacks are the free-men and as at Bournemouth that was the area where United started to get the upper hand, notably on the right through Valencia whose excellent early season form continued.
It was no surprise then that United’s breakthrough goal came from the right. It was a surprise though that it was Rooney rather than Valencia who found the space out there and delivered a cross. Rooney ran onto ball played down towards the corner flag by Valencia, looked up and picked out Ibrahimovic with an inch perfect cross. Three things made this goal; Pogba’s diversionary run towards the near post and the precision of Rooney’s delivery. The other factor was the excellence of Zlatan’s execution of the header.
We apologise for repeating a point made in Bournemouth report, but a trend is developing here. Zlatan pulls away deep or to the far post as the ball goes wide he then arrives late behind the central defender. Because of his height he can out jump most defenders whether they have lost him because of his movement or not. If the cross is accurate it will be too high for them as he meets it and accurately heads on goal and so is If the cross is almost unstoppable. Boom! 36 minutes played 1-0.
The game had been fairly tight up until this point, but United had slowly taken the initiative as the half had worn on. Some features of United’s play need to be highlighted.
United were not impactful because much of their play, particularly around the opponent’s penalty area was fairly disjointed. Players are clearly still getting to know each other. Secondly United’s play now has the strength and power through the middle of the pitch to be far more assertive than in recent seasons. Fellaini, Pogba and Ibrahimovic are all well over sixth foot of course and working in tandem they have the potential to physically over power teams or at least stand up to imposing opponents, something United have occasionally failed to do in recent seasons, (thing the league game at West Ham towards the end of next season).
A few words about Paul Pogba. He has an almost languid elegant style. He is strong and although starting on the left of midfield he was everywhere across the pitch at times. Pushing forward he showed a capacity to hold the ball for a fraction of a second longer than appeared wise, but his control, guile and strength ensured he was able to draw people in before switching the play or laying a pass off to a teammate now in space because his confidence on the ball had drawn opponents in. If United learn how to use this it will be a powerful weapon. The other aspect of his game is that he has the ability to go past people with the ball using both pace, power and skill. This means that his play is unpredictable; another powerful weapon.
Half time 1-0.
Neither team made any half time substitutions, although for United it was noticeable that Mata was now positioned centrally on an almost permanent basis, at least at the start of the half. The half opened with Southampton seeing most of the ball, passing well and at a good tempo. The pattern though remained that they were able to keep the ball but found it difficult to make an impression on United in the centre of the pitch. It was a different story when they moved the ball wide, especially left towards Targett advancing from left back. This was the area Mata had vacated and he had acres of space to advance towards Valencia. Valencia coped well but Targett was able to deliver a number of crosses from that side. Southampton did get the ball in the net when a cross came in from the right and this illustrated a similar pattern of play where their midfield were forced to spread play wide because United midfield line were defending on a narrow front in the middle. The goal was disallowed for offside.
During this phase of play United looked dangerous on the break-away usually when Southampton tried and failed to attack United’s centre. Then after picking up the ball United’s midfield would quickly transfer the ball to wide areas either towards Valencia on the right or the increasingly prominent Martial and the advancing Shaw on the left. Pogba was usually the fulcrum of these breaks. Just such a passage of play resulted in United’s second goal when Shaw found himself with an opportunity to run into the box from the left. Clasie clipped him and although there was minimal contact a penalty was given. Ibrahimovic stepped up to take the spot kick, Boom! 2-0 after 52 minutes.
This goal might have demoralise Southampton, but credit to them that it didn’t. They continued to play the same way undeterred and continued to have the lion’s share of possession. United continued to look for breakaway opportunities. Martial had three good opportunities to either score himself or combining with Shaw set up a goal between the 64th and 68th minutes, but largely through a lack of a clinical final pass or shot the score remained at 2-0. Southampton failed to score because although they had a lot of the ball and found a lot of space in the wide areas, especially on the left their crossing usually failed to find Redmond or Long in the middle.
On 75 minutes Jose Mourinho decided it was time to make a change and he removed Mata and introduced Mkhitaryan. Mata had played well in this game. He had worked hard to close down space and had put in a solid defensive shift protecting the half spaces. His position forced Southampton wide and was a big part of the reason they could not get through the centre. Now Mkhitarayan occupied a similar position although he was perhaps slightly wider. When United broke he looked neat and shrewd and his presence gave United greater attacking balance between right and left. Now the ball was as likely to move right as United counter-attacked as left.
United’s shape late in the game and Mkhitaryan who procduced an assured cameo in the last 15 minutes
A further change came on 81 minutes as United introduced Herrera for Martial. Herrera positioned himself centrally as the number 10 with Rooney moving to the left. United were now far more defensive in shape as a 4-4-1-1. Jose had shut down the game; what we have we hold. On 88 minutes Smalling replaced Rooney and United played the last few minutes with three centre backs and a five man defence. The game ended without any further dramas.
Like the game at Bournemouth this wasn’t a great United performance; it was good with some excellent moments and some very encouraging signs. United looked solid. Southampton aren’t mugs, they are a good side who should easily finish in the top half of the table and they had their moments too, but United looked fairly comfortable in this game.
Perhaps the key to all this is the time it will take to assimilate a new method with a handful of new players. The “defensive organisation” to use a Van Gaal phrase is already there with Bailly adding some welcome additional bullish grit, but going forward, and especially around the box things are a little one paced and a little disjointed. The second of those two issues should naturally disappear with time as everybody develops that better understanding, and in truth so should the first for unless we are talking about an individual run this too requires players to be able to play almost instinctively with each other so that they can just quicken the tempo at the key moment.
Rooney and Ibrahimovic action areas. Rooney who has been criticized for dropping too deep only slightly deeper than Ibrahimovic.
We saw some pleasing individual attacking moments here from Pogba, Zlatan, Martial, (who should have scored a couple) and Valencia, (who is like a new man). Pre-match Mourinho warned that United were unlikely to fly out of the blocks and he has proved right in this, but already with a far more pro-active attacking method they look a better more effective proposition; optimism about the future is back.