Returning to league action United made the long journey down to Southampton, a ground where they usually do well but always seem to enjoy a tough game. Everyone expected further squad rotation.


In: De Gea, Valencia, Bailly, Jones, Young, Fellaini, Matic, Mkhitaryan and Lukaku.
Out: Romero, Darmian, Lindelof, Smalling, Blind, Herrera, Carrick, Lingard and Martial.


Jose Mourinho “un-made” all the changes from United’s mid-week League Cup game and reverted to the side which started the previous league match. That meant reverting to a 4-2-3-1 shape. Southampton also utilised this shape.

A Game of two halves?

Most commentators have portrayed this game as being a game of two halves with United on top in the first half and Southampton on top after the break with United fighting a rear-guard action to hold out for the points. Whilst that is broadly true this is a significant over simplification.


United’s first half shape and Rashford whose direct running troubled Southampton

In the first half the game was in fact fairly even until United scored in the 20th minute, after which United took control up to half time. After halftime Southampton were much more assertive and they took control. As the game wore on they looked more likely to find an equaliser simply because their control became almost total and it was in the final quarter that United focused mainly on resisting this pressure.

Early in the first half

Both Southampton and United had period of extended possession in the first half, Southampton before United’s goal and United after. It is ironic then that it was from a period of prolonged possession that United took the lead.

Initially though United sat quite deep in the opening period with Matic and Fellaini in front of the back four. This allowed Southampton plenty of time and space on the ball ensuring that they were able to retain possession and build moves. Their problem though was that they were too deep in midfield which meant that front runner Shane Long was isolated and this resulted in Southampton losing the ball whenever they tried to move it forward. They could keep the ball but struggled to have an impact.

At this stage United usually looked more threatening despite having less of the ball.  Th is was because Lukaku did not become isolated due to the positioning and movement of Rashford and Mkhitaryan who came narrow and short to form a link with the front man. When a Southampton move broke down United usually played an early ball forward and more often than not towards Rashford whose direct running troubled Southampton. United didn’t score from any of these breaks because their link up play wasn’t quite accurate enough.

Lukaku Strikes

One of the problems associated with these early breaks was that United lacked attacking width. This wasn’t just as a consequence of Rashford running narrow; Mata if course also tends to come narrow but it was United’s cautious deep start that exacerbated this. This meant that generally Valencia and Young did not get forward and it was only when United had a longer period of possession that they found the opportunities to get forward in wide areas. On one of the occasions when the whole team was able to advance in shape United scored.

Lukaku goal, the graphic doesnt tell the full story only showing the move from the final switch of play

Lukaku goal, the graphic doesnt tell the full story only showing the move from the final switch of play

This goal started with a throw in taken by Valencia on the right. United actually lost the ball but quickly won it back. Matic managed to move the ball to the left and via a series of passes the ball was circulated across to the left hand side, back to the centre and back further to Valencia on the right. He declined to cross and checked back returning the ball to Matic who quickly switched play back across to Young on the left. He was able to check back inside onto his right foot and with seemingly no space to cross delivered an inch perfect cross onto the head of Lukaku. Forster saved Lukaku’s initial header but couldn’t stop the follow up shot. This was a patient move and one Louis van Gaal would have been proud of but the difference from most of those Van Gaal moves was that the passes were purposeful and delivered at pace.

Lukaku, Boom!

Lukaku, Boom!

Second Half Differences

After the goal United took control of the game and had far more possession without actually making it tell. Then after half time the game changed. Why?

Southampton had clearly had a halftime talking too as they were far more assertive after the break. A number of things in their game changed. Firstly they moved up the pitch which meant that Shane Long was no longer isolated. This was as a consequence of Romeu and Lemina adopting higher positions. Southampton also pushed their full backs higher and moved the ball quicker as they advanced.

United’s response to this was to sit deeper themselves with Matic and Fellaini dropping very deep and Rashford and Mata dropping deep in wide areas often appearing as auxiliary and additional fullbacks. This allowed Southampton more space to control the game with their central midfield players having time and space to look up and pick passes. There was simply no pressure on the ball.

Matic and Fellaini first half action areas  fellaini and Matic second half action areas

Matic and Fellaini’s action areas in the first half, (left), and second half, (right). Note less forward action areas in the second half and more deeper action areas.

It was clear that if Jose Mourinho did not affect some change Southampton were increasingly likely to equalise and so in the 62nd minute he removed Mata and replaced him with Herrera. United now changed shape to a 4-3-3 with Matic in front of the defence and Fellaini to the right and Herrera to the left higher. Mkhitaryan moved to the right of a front three. After this change United stabilised the situation; with Mkhitaryan and Rashford dropping deeper when Southampton had the ball the shape became a 4-1-4-1 in the defensive phase. This worked because United were not now too deep as they had been before the change and Southampton had to work far harder to start moves. They remained on top but for a while they did not have the same menace.

mid second half  Late second half

United’s shape after the introduction of Herrera, (left), and later with the introduction of Smalling, (right).

Late Rear-guard

Southampton’s response to this was to introduce a second striker in the form of Gabbiadini who came on Davis in the 73rd minute. In response United introduced Smalling in the 75th minute to set up as a three man central defence but with fullbacks. Smalling replaced Mkhitaryan and United were now a rough 5-1-2-2.

This “tit-for-tat” continued with Southampton introducing a third striker in the form of Austin in the 83rd minute; at the same time they introduced Ward-Prowse in place of Cedric presumably because he is renowned for his crossing ability. The obvious tactic now with three strikers was to go for an aerial bombardment. United coped well with this but Mourinho still thought fit to introduced a fourth centre back in the form of Blind in the 91st minute.


A special mention should be made of Rashford after this game. He was United’s biggest threat in the first half with his pace and direct running but was required to dig in and play as an extra left sided full back for long periods of the second half as United resisted Southampton’s efforts to get back into the game.  We saw two sides of his game here and he executed both well.

In the second half Southampton very obviously tried to target the space behind Young. Initially this dragged Jones across and so potentially weakened United’s centre. Rashford’s response was to come deeper and help Young out. This helped to stem the threat from that side and allowed United to maintain good defensive coverage.