MANCHESTER UNITED VS SOUTHAMPTON
United returned to action after the International Break with the first of four home fixtures in succession over a period of twelve days, no doubt looking to play themselves into some form and develop some momentum.
In: Evans and Fellaini.
Out: Vidic and Cleverley.
- The same issues previously identified in recent fixtures were key issues in this game. If Rooney plays high the link between the midfield and attack is almost eliminated leaving Rooney and van Persie isolated. Carrick and Fellaini do not seem to complement each other. Fellaini had a poor game often giving the ball away.
- The other question in this game was how would United beat the Southampton press? When they did this successfully it was by switching play. They then enjoyed their brightest moments, but they didn’t do this enough. This meant that United never really got on top and were unable to get a second goal so were always vulnerable to the potential for an equalizer.
- Januzaj had another bright game, restrained by repeated fouling.
- The late substitutions made by David Moyes seemed to surrender the initiative to Southampton at a time when they were beginning to push forward in greater numbers, taking more risks in an attempt to force an equalizer. Ultimately these changes backfired.
Both United and Southampton started this game in a 4-2-3-1 shape. The most significant selection change from the side that started at Sunderland was the reintroduction of Fellaini in place of Tom Cleverley. This meant that Januzaj continued on the left and Nani on the right. Rooney played slightly, but only slightly deeper than van Persie.
As anticipated Southampton employed a high press right from the start, never allowing United players time to settle on the ball. Initially this lead to a scrappy start but as the game settled into a pattern Southampton very quickly gained an upper hand. The story of the half in general terms was that Southampton, were on top for the first twenty minutes. United improved gradually through that period and scored after 26 minutes. Thereafter United were in the ascendancy for a period and looked as if they might score again. Southampton though stuck to their tactics, kept their shape and by the end of the half the game was pretty even. The tactical question to solve or United throughout this half and in fact throughout the whole match was how best to beat the Southampton press?
In the first twenty minutes Southampton were successful in hurrying United. As a consequence they often won the ball in the United half and having done so moved the ball quickly. Once in possession Southampton players worked hard to create passing options for the man in possession. This lead to a number of half chances, no more than that with United’s defence generally looking solid, able supported by a double screen of Carrick and Fellaini. Fellaini played very deep. The Southampton press was executed by their front four. Their defence and deep midfield two moved up the pitch playing a high line and so squeezing the space, but always retaining their shape.
Initially United players tended to hit a long ball forward in an attempt to beat the press. This was meat and drink for Southampton who simply picked off those long passes. Rooney and van Persie, a familiar story of late, were isolated. The alternative for United in possession was to try shorter quicker passes continually moving the ball away from the press. Of course this option always ran the risk the player being closed down and loosing possession close to the United goal.
So how did United gradually improve? United were quite brave in their play. The tempo of the game, set by the Southampton press meant that if United were to avoid losing the ball they had to pass quickly. One and two touch passing moves were the order of the day. United executed these in tight areas and then having created enough space for a player to get his head up that player could then look to switch play with a quick square or diagonal pass to the opposite side of the pitch. United did this increasingly as the half wore on and it always resulted in their most successful moments, when they switched the ball they had space and Southampton had to work hard to quickly adjust. They didn’t do this all the time and they did not do it often enough to be sure that this was a deliberate ploy to beat the press but it was effective and resulted in several good moments. United passed quickly in a small areas, drew Southampton’s players to the action area and then switched play.
On 26 minutes United scored. Boom! This resulted from arguably the pass of the match from Januzaj. He had had a bright first half but had been restrained by a number of niggly Southampton fouls. Here he had enough time to release a searching diagonal ball across the Southampton defence for Rooney to run on to. He was block tackled as he was about to shoot but the ball was picked up by van Persie who finished calmly shot behind a second defender lunging across the goal.
Goals change games and for a while United hand the upper hand and might have scored again, but slowly as the half wore on Southampton were able to stabilize their position and the half ended fairly evenly.
A couple of other points are worth making about the first half. As previously mentioned Fellaini stayed fairly deep throughout the half. He had a poor half and frequently lost possession. Staying deep and with Rooney often high there was minimal link between front and back again. Rooney dropping deeper coincided with most of United’s better moments. Is Cleverley a better foil for Carrick than Fellaini? A Carrick/Cleverley combination does seem to have a better balance as a pair.
Januzaj had a good first half. He had clearly been identified as a danger man after his previous performance at Sunderland and was frequently the victim of fouls. This comes with the territory, but he should a pleasing appetite to continue to do the right thing, undeterred by the attention.
The second half started as the first had started with a period of scrappy play. The tactical approach of both sides remained unchanged. Again Southampton played a high press and had periods of good play. United again looked better when they switched the ball quickly. The start of the second half was fairly even.
On 56 minutes Pochettino signaled the visitors intent to change things in an attempt to get back on level terms. He removed Rodriguez who had been pretty ineffective and replaced him with Lambert. Positionally this was a straight swap. It was United who took the initiative at this point with a couple of good chances to score again around the 60 minute point. Firstly van Perise hit the bar with a header from a Rooney corner then a couple of minutes later Januzaj drew a fine save with a fierce shot from outside the box. Fellaini ballooned the rebound high and wide.
After 66 minutes Pochettino made his second change introducing the highly rated Ward-Prose who replaced Steven Davis. Again this was a straight swap, but Ward-Prose was far more effective in his play and seemed to complete a far higher proportion of his passes than Davis. As a response Moyes made his first change with Nani replacing Giggs. Nani had contributed very little throughout, being ably marshaled by Luke Shaw, (a player to watch). Positionally this was a straight swap, but Fellaini did now push higher.
Then on 76 minutes with Ward-Prose instrumental in Southampton getting the upper hand in midfield Welbeck was introduced in place of Fellaini. This prompted a positional reshuffle, but the overall shape remained unchanged. Welbeck played on the left, Januzaj switched to the right and Giggs moved into midfield to partner Carrick.
Fellaini’s performance had been disappointing. He tended to stay deep alongside Carrick again until he finally began to press forward just before he was substituted. Effectively Carrick and Fellaini formed a double screen and in this they were effective, (Fellaini made five interceptions, that is more than any other player in the match), but with both players sitting deep their creative impact was minimal, and Fellaini was guilty of regularly giving the ball away.
United looked reasonably comfortable now for a while but as Southampton redoubled their efforts to get back into the game Moyes made a further substitution on 84minutes. Now he introduced Smalling and removed Rooney. Smalling moved to centre back and Jones joined Carrick and Giggs in midfield as United’s shape changed to a 4-3-3 for the closing minutes.
The disaster struck. Southampton equalized from a corner with a couple of minutes to go. They deserved this as they had always competed and stuck to their game plan. United had never really got on top in the game and in the last half hour the visitors had taken the initiative. David Moyes had been reactive to Pochettino’s changes rather than proactive himself. Making such a late substitution, resulting in a defensive reshuffle was also a questionable move. The defending on the corner was a shambles.
This was a fair result on balance but two points dropped for United in view of such a late equalizer. Southampton executed their game plan well, but United experienced this last season at Old Trafford when they were perhaps fortunate to win. After that game Sir Alex said that he thought their display was the best of the season by a visiting team. Why then were they not better prepared?
In patches United did play quite well. Their tactic of switching play to beat the press was the right one, but they did not do this frequently enough to make enough of a difference to the balance of play. As a consequence Southampton were always in the game.
Fellaini had a poor game, Rooney and Nani had a quiet game. A pattern of the same weaknesses in United’s play is becoming established. Teams will now work to exploit those weaknesses. One feels that United need to change things somehow to overcome these difficulties.