MANCHESTER UNITED vs SOUTHAMPTON
Wembley Stadium, London. 26.02.2016
Having beaten Northampton Town, Manchester City, West Ham United and Hull City en route United now face Southampton in the English Football League final on Sunday. This writer was ten years old on the last occasion we met them in a cup final in 1976; my first final, my first visit to Wembley, they broke my heart with an offside goal. This then is an opportunity if not for revenge then certainly to make amends.
Southampton are a well-run club. They came back into the Premier League in 2012 have been out of the top flight for just two years and have established themselves in the division looking reasonably comfortable despite changing managers and loosing players to wealthier clubs. In fact last season they did well enough to qualify from 6th place for this season Europa League. They were eliminated from the competition at the pre-Christmas group stage.
They appear to have been able to do all this because they have got the structure of their club right. This even aw them recover from some serious financial difficulties a few years ago, Southampton’s parent club went into receivership in 2009. Perhaps having learnt a few lessons this is why they are now such a well-run club. They have a strong academy which has produced many top class players over the last ten years or so, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain amongst others. The pick of the crop however would have to be Gareth Bale.
They also have a strong scouting and recruitment department which allows that they can pick up a player to fill a need or a promising youngster without breaking their budgets. This scouting department also seems adept at identifying a good standard of manager with Mario Pottechino and Ronald Koeman the two most recent mangers before the present incumbent Claude Puel. All these managers and their players have slotted in to the club structure so well that it can fairly be said that it is that structure which has enabled the club to maintain a level and it current status rather than any specific personnel.
So where do they go from here?
As with their managers, players come and go at Southampton with the club developing them as youngsters or improving players brought in from elsewhere. Other clubs have benefitted from this with United, Arsenal and Liverpool all recruiting from St Mary’s in recent years. One feels that if Southampton want to move on from this they have to change from being a selling club.
A Leicester fairy-tale only happens very occasionally and as such a Premiership challenge does not look a realistic prospect in the near future but if the club has stabilised itself in the top flight to the extent that they do not need to overly worry about the prospect of relegation, that level of stability should be enough to allow them to push on towards seriously challenging for cup successes. That is where they are now and that is why this final is so important to Southampton. If they could win a few cup competitions that might enable the club to hang on to players and managers a little lot get which then in turn might enable the club to push on towards becoming a regular feature towards the top end of the table.
SOUTHAMPTON SEASON SO FAR
This year, there first under Claude Puel has been a mixed year for Southampton. As previously mentioned they were eliminated from the Europa League before Christmas and have also been eliminated from the FA Cup. That has given them the rest and preparation time that Jose Mourinho has bemoaned over the last week, but the true test of a team’s standing is their league position. Only this truly reflects their consistent standards. Going into the League Cup Final they sit in 11th position in the Premier League having played 25 games. Their record is won 8, draw 6 and lost 11 with a current goal difference of -3. That is pretty much a definition of mid-table. Clearly that is a disappointment after finishing in a European qualifying position last year and has led to some criticism and pressure on Puel.
In terms of his methods these have changed during the year as Puel has strove to achieve improved results. At the outset of the campaign he set his team up consistently in a 4-3-1-2 shape. Essentially this was a 4-4-2 incorporating a midfield diamond often but not exclusively with Dusan Tadic in the number 10 role behind two strikers. One of those strikers was usually target man Shane Long, although recently this is likely to be Manolo Gabbiadini signed in January from Napoli. We are describing this as a 4-3-1-2 however gi ven their fortunes this season the two outer players in the midfield diamond would frequently drop back in the defensive phase flattening the midfield shape to a three in front of a four man defence. Southampton only won 3 of their first 12 league games, so inevitably they spent considerable time defending.
Southampton’s starting shape against United in August, left, and right, their first use of 4-3-3 at Hull
This was a consistent approach which only changed in late October when they flirted with a 4-2-3-1 before utilising a 4-3-3 starting shape in their 1-2 defeat at Hull on the 6th November. Since then they have utilised that shape most frequently reverting to alternatives late in the game depending upon the match situation, (they have often reverted to a 4-2-3-1 when chasing a game in the late stages of the match). Puel really wants to play two strikers so if his shape is a 4-2-3-1 he will even push his number 10 forward to get close to his striker, (usually Shane Long), or asks the outer players in the three to come narrow. This puts an emphasis on his fullbacks to get forward and provide width. These are usually Bertrand and Soares, and they a very capable players who often pose a threat.
Currently Southampton have a central defensive crisis; they sold Jose Fonte to West Ham United in January and club captain Virgil van Dijk is currently injured. This might see recently signed ex-Juventus defender Martin Caceres make his debut at Wembley
UNITED’S CURRENT SITUATION
Having said that this game is important to Southampton it is of course also important to United. It is a chance for Jose Mourinho to land his first trophy as United manager. It would be a second consecutive season in which the club has won a trophy and the first time United have won a trophy in consequence seasons other than under Sir Alex since 1968. Most importantly it would buy Mourinho time to continue his team building.
United have improved significantly during the year as players have adjusted to Jose Mourinho’s methods and strategies. One would expect Mourinho to go with a 4-3-3 shape if he is confident, but he has often commented in the past that Cup finals are all about winning which mighta led him to adopt his more cautious 4-2-3-1. The choice of strategy is complicated however by recent injuries to a couple of players whom one would expect to make the starting eleven. In his Friday press conference Mourinho indicated that one of those two players, Carrick, might make it. He is the best player if the strategy requires a single defensive midfield player.
If he plays, and Jose comments could be a bluff, the strongest side would appear to be De Gea – Valencia, Bailly, Smalling, Blind – Carrick Herrera (to the left), Pogba (to the right) – Mata (or Lingard), Ibrahimovic, Martial (or Rashford on the left) in a 4-3-3.
United in a 4-3-3 on the left, and on the right a more cautious 4-2-3-1. We note that last week at Blackburn he started in a 4-2-3-1 with Carrick but changed to a 4-3-3 later in the game as United took control
If Carrick isn’t fit we would anticipate a double pivot with Herrera and Pogba deeper. Mourinho has done this a number of times recently but whilst Pogba has become more used to adapting to this role it doesn’t seem to get the best out of him. Then in a 4-2-3-1 he usually still starts Mata on the right with a more fluid option in a central number 10 role. Last weekend that was Mkhitaryan, the other player who picked up an injury in midweek so in his place it might be Lingard or even Rooney if fit and focused. Who knows?
Many United fans are a bit contemptuous of this trophy. Some, especially those of my father’s generation. Do not consider it a major trophy at all. Nevertheless it has been good to Mourinho and previously to Sir Alex as a springboard to greater successes. We would expect Jose Mourinho to field his strongest available side. We would also hope but not expect to win what we would anticipate will be a tight game. Southampton will probably adopt a cautious defensive approach and wait for opportunities to hit United on the break. United will need to be patient, but move the ball quickly to create opportunities. If they do this well, they should win.