MANCHESTER UNITED vs SOUTHAMPTON
Football League Cup Final Tie. 
Wembley Stadium, London. 26.02.2017

This was a big game, bigger perhaps for United than a League Final would normally be. That isn’t a reflection of how far United have fallen in recent years, although that is not to deny that fallen a little in recent years, but because it was a first opportunity for Jose Mourinho to win a trophy at Old Trafford. That is significant on two levels. Firstly winning a trophy so early in the season takes some pressure off for the rest of the season potentially setting United up to achieve greater things later in the year. Secondly it would be further evidence that United are going in the right direction under Jose giving his tenure early tangible reward. In a final one can usually expect a manager to play his strongest side, but a few injuries here picked up in midweek European action seemed to prevent that on this occasion.

PERSONNEL

In: De Gea, Valencia, Rojo, Herrera, Lingard and Martial.
Out: Romero, Young, Blind, Fellaini, Carrick and Mkhitaryan.

KEYPOINTS

  • Revenge is a dish best served cold. After 41 years it was very cold; so what if we didn’t play that well, so what if we were lucky on an offside decision.  So what.
  • United’s first half shape didn’t work against Southampton. United’s play was too slow and cautious. Southampton played around Herrera and Pogba and found space behind Mata and Martial.
  • Mourinho changed it at half time going to a4-3-3 and whilst Southampton still had plenty of the game much of their possession was in deeper areas, and United now looked more dangerous when they did come forward.
  • United’s first half approach seemed very cautious. United moved the ball forward very slowly, much of their passing was conservative, side to side. Martial rarely took on his man and had a poor game throughout.  Why?
  • Pogba played well, particularly as the game wore on, but Ibrahimovic is the man. A superb performance, he is a leader. Like Eric in the past his personality is bigger than the occasion.

FIRST HALF

Jose Mourinho set up his side in a 4-2-3-1 at the outset with Lingard behind Ibrahimovic and Martial on the left, Mata on the right. Behind them all Pogba and Herrera were the pivots. Southampton set up as a 4-4-1-1.

fIRST HALF 1           first half 2

United starting shape, left and Southampton’s movement behind United’s midfield and defence drawing players in and creating space in wide areas for their fullbacks to attack.

After the opening exchanges the first half settled into a clear pattern. Despite this pattern and largely against the run of play United established a 2-0 lead by the 38th minute. Southampton can consider themselves unfortunate in this but this was probably due to as much to United’s short owing as much as Southampton’s good play. To analyse the half we can quite simply break things down into what we did badly and what they did well.

From United’s perspective we moved the ball forward far too slowly. It was as if we were under instruction to make sure we didn’t concede an early goal by playing a conservative game, passing square and making very few runs forward off the ball. Martial who had a number of opportunities to run at his opponent 1on1 never took on his man. This approach was perhaps best illustrated in the 15th minute when United won a free kick half way into the Southampton half. When the free kick was taken United had only one player ahead of the ball.  Shortly after in the 17th minute United took the lead from another free kick only slightly further forward.  This position was closer to goal so merited a wall. Zlatan stepped forward to deliver a superb free kick over the wall into the corner. Boom! 1-0against the run of play.

Zlatan - Boom!

Zlatan – Boom!

By this point Southampton had already had a goal disallowed for a dubious offside decision. So what; remember ’76.

So what did Southampton do well? They moved the ball forward quicker. Often they then aged it back but it was in and out rather than or as well as side to side.  This was successful in allowing Southampton to work the ball between the midfield lines and into the half spaces behind Mata and Martial. From there they would move the ball wide for their advancing fullbacks who delivered a number of dangerous crosses. These fullbacks for d a lot of room and time in these spaces.

United helped Southampton in this. Early in the game United tried to press Southampton and it looked like they might have some early success. They didn’t because whilst the fro t four pressed there was space behind them and in front of the two pivots.  To close this space the pivots stepped forward but this left a space behind them and in front of the defence. Southampton exploited this by a combination of good midfield movement and their attacking line also dropping into this area at times.

This and United’s caution in possession meant that when United had the ball they were usually too deep, whilst when Southampton had the ball the midfield and forward six were often too high.

Lingard - Boom!

Lingard – Boom!

Somehow United scored again however in the 38th minute. This goal was against the run of play again but also a goal produced by football unlike anything else United had produced in the game. Pogba feed the ball to Rojo on the left.  He played a short pass inside to Mata who passed first time to Martial standing on the touchline. Martial played it inside to a Rojo running diagonally towards the penalty area. His square pass reached Lingard just outside the box in a pocket of space.  He stepped sideways and curled a low shot into the far corner. Boom! 2-0.

So with a 2 goal lead the task at hand was to get to halftime, seven minutes away,  with that lead intact so that at the break they could reorganise to produce a better display after the break. They couldn’t do that however with Southampton pulling a goal back in the 45th minute.  The gaols was a product of all Southampton had done well in the half and all United had done badly. Southampton moved the ball behind Pogba and Herrera before switching it wide to their right in the space behind Martial.  Ward-Prowse delivered a ball across the six yard box for Gabbiadini to prod home past De Gea from close range.

Half time 2-1 to United.

SECOND HALF

Jose Mourinho made a half time substitution replacing Mata with Carrick who took up his usual defensive midfield role. Pogba and Herrera moved forward in front of him to form a midfield triangle. Lingard switched from the number 10 position to a wide left attacking position. Mata can consider himself unlucky to be the player replaced. Neither he nor Martial had enjoyed a good first half, but Mata had probably worked the hardest of the pair.  He was probably the player to be sacrificed because the changes made ensued that United had the threat of pace on both sides now.

Unfortunately before any of these changes could affect the game Southampton equalised. This goal illustrated united caution or on this occasion indecisiveness. United had cleared the ball to the edge of the box, but Martial was outjumped and the ball fell in the box for Gabbiadini. The initial clearing header was weak, Martial had to be more determined to win the ball and the central defenders were slow to react. As the ball came back into the box everyone except Gabbiadini was on their heels allowing him the time to finish first time poking the ball past De Gea. 48 minutes played and the score was now 2-2.

Southampton now had their tails up and full of confidence they looked the more likely team to score for the next twenty minutes or so. United continued to look sluggish. During this period they moved the ball well and quickly with an early pass to Gabbiadini or Redland who linked well with the advancing midfield. With Carrick in front of the defence however United were playing further forward and as the forwards dropped deep Carrick ensured they had limited licence. Southampton never really got behind United but instead moved the ball wide.  They looked dangerous in these areas but Lingard and Martial were now working hard as wide players to track back and assist their full backs. Despite this Southampton looked dangerous in this period via a series of crosses and corners. United’s central defensive pair of Smalling and Bailly didn’t deal with this well or with the second ball after an ineffective clearance. United were lucky not to concede again. This period all culminated in a Southampton header against the post.

second half a            2nd half

United’s second half shape, left, and how they matched up with Southampton across the midfield after their adjustments

Conventional football wisdom is that you need to score when you are on top and Southampton didn’t.  The game changed. Why? Perhaps Southampton having failed to score lost conviction, perhaps United have stayed in the game through this period grew in conviction. Late substitutions in the game certainly helped. In the second half United had matched Southampton’s midfield shape in the middle of the pitch with a triangle such that Carrick could pick up their number 10 Tadic whilst Pogba and Herrera would pick up Southampton two deeper midfield players Davies and Romeu.  That left Southampton’s defenders or wider midfield players with time on the ball but with Martial and Lingard now dropping deeper that was okay as far as United were concerned.  They had time on the ball but a long way from United’s goal. What this meant was that as the half moved on Southampton still had more possession but in deeper areas than before. Perhaps this was what prompted Claude Puel to withdraw Dusan Tadic who had been operating in the number 10 role for Southampton. This had an effect; Carrick now had more opportunity to get his head up when he got on the ball. This in turn seemed to embolden Herrera and Pogba who were far more effective pressing Davies and Romeu.

At the same time as the Tadic substitution in the 77th minute Mourinho made his second change removing Lingard and introduced Rashford. Initially Rashford took up Lingard s position on the right but it became increasingly clear that he had licence to operate right across the line in support of Zlatan. United were now playing higher and winning the ball higher. Rashford s role supporting Zlatan was highly effective. The Swede could stay a little higher and more central allowing Rashford to move offering an obvious early forward pass onto his direct running. Rashford nearly got in on a couple of occasions and created a couple of potentially dangerous situations which have United didn’t manage to exploit.

In the 83rd minute Puel replaced Gabbiadini with Shane long. Why did Southampton take off Gabbiadini? He had been excellent.

United perhaps needed a little more and Rooney was poised to come on but then United scored the winner. United passed the ball from right to left the move starting with Ibrahimovic. It was eventualy passed across to Martial who came in side but was held up by two defenders. Nevertheless he kept the ball alive and stretched to push the ball to Herrera in a narrow position on the United right.  He had time and space to look up and chip a deliberate and delightful cross directly onto the head if Ibrahimovic in the six yard box. Boom!

Zlatan - Boooooooooooom!

Zlatan – Boooooooooooom!

His bullet header from close range made the score 3-2 in the 87th minute. For Southampton there was no way back. Fellaini replaced Martial in injury time.

CONCLUSION

United may have won this game and in so doing secured a major trophy for the second successive season but this was an unconvinced in display. United’s first half shape didn’t really work, or rather it didn’t work with the particular players deployed within it. Specifically are Pogba and Herrera the best options as pivots; we have previously talked about how you don’t get the best out of Pogba in a deep role but here it was clear that between the pair they weren’t sure whether to press or cover space, stick or twist. This meant that they didn’t control the space around their positions in the middle of the pitch. That is very unusual for a Mourinho side.

Shots

Shots

Jose changed things at half time by introducing Carrick and changing shape, pushing Pogba and Herrera further forward. Carrick controlled space allowing Herrera and Pogba to press. Southampton still hand more possession but this was now in deeper areas and when United won the ball it was higher meaning that their moves generally started in more advanced positions. From about the point when Southampton hit the post United started to be a more effective side. Southampton seemed to lose a little conviction. Why did they take Gabbiadini off, especially with extra time looming?

General Statistics

General Statistics

Why was United’s performance so disappointing? Perhaps this was down to fatigue with Southampton having had two weeks off and United having played three games in that time? United certainly looked slow and sluggish, Southampton sharper for most of the game. But United found a way, Jose made some adjustments and Zlatan rose to the occassion.

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