A subdued performance delivered a disappointing result as Manchester United’s poor run of form continued with just one win in the last five Premier League games. Louis van Gaal’s men will need to improve quickly if they are to maintain their position in the Champions League places, with a comfortable lead before Christmas over the chasing pack now eroded.
Southampton began on the front foot and put the Reds under some early pressure before the home side gained good control and possession but failed to penetrate a well-organised and resolute Saints defence. Clear-cut chances were few and far between but once more United were wasteful in front of goal with Juan Mata in particular failing to capitalise on some very good chances.
The only goal of the game came from a long kick upfield from Fraser Forster, and Dusan Tadic showed great composure, firstly to find Pelle, and secondly to stay alive as the ball rebounded off the post into his path to slot home.
Although United dominated possession, they were at times careless with their passing and, ultimately, toothless in front of goal. In the end Southampton remained solid and walked away with a crucial three points, lifting them above United and into third in the Premier League table. Much to ponder, then, for Louis van Gaal; here are five things we learned from the narrow home defeat to Ronald Koeman’s side.
1) Defensive Adventure
One of the few positives from Old Trafford, in contrast to recent games, was the willingness of United’s centre-backs to stride into midfield with the ball. Moreover, distribution from the back was much improved both in terms of direction and tempo.
A lot has been made of United’s shaky defence, particularly whilst playing the now prevalent 3-5-2 formation, but Southampton’s goal aside the Reds were solid and far more adventurous in possession. A number of times Phil Jones and Chris Smalling made movements forwards, striding into midfield, and distribution was noticeably better than in recent weeks for the most-part.
Once more, however, United struggled to create chances in attack and it is there that the 3-5-2 formation is biting. For all the talk of defensive frailties, it is in attack that persistence with the 3-5-2 is proving damaging. It may surprise many to know that United had exactly the same number of points at this stage last season under David Moyes, only this season they’ve scored one less goal.
With players returning to full fitness, pertinently Blind and Rojo, distribution from defence is expected to improve. It is hoped that United’s attacking exploits will improve as a result.
2) Width A Worry
An obvious theme emanating from the Reds’ games so far this season has been a dependence on the full-backs-come-wing-backs to provide the width. It is a strange situation for a club famed for playing with flying wingers and crossing the ball; and right now it’s a problem.
There is of course the argument of necessity; at present United don’t possess the quality in the wider areas to play effectively with a formation reliant on wing-play. Moreover, with a plethora of attacking talent in the central areas it is easy to see why Van Gaal so far has persisted with the narrow 4-4-2 diamond and 3-5-2 formations.
Against Southampton the play was predictable and one dimensional, with the pace of the Saints’ full-backs largely able to negate the effect of United’s wing-backs. Although making some good runs, Valencia’s delivery in the final third was, once again, poor. It was only when Daley Blind moved to left wing-back that quality was delivered into the box and Juan Mata should have scored.
If Van Gaal’s side are to be effective moving forwards quality in the wide areas will have to improve. The tempo of circulation of possession will also have to improve and the midfield will have to work harder to provide the wing-backs incisive options on the ball.
3) Di Maria Dilemma
Niggling injuries have no doubt played their part but after a blistering start there is no question that Angel Di Maria’s form has curtailed since the beginning of his United career. Let’s start by stating the obvious; the Argentine is one of, if not the best, player currently at Louis van Gaal’s disposal.
In his absence, many bemoaned the lack of pace in the United side and rightfully highlighted the potency that Di Maria can offer on the counter-attack. However, at home where United are expected, indeed it is their philosophy, to dominate possession, pace on the break is not such a valuable commodity.
As it transpired against Southampton, playing up front the Argentine failed to influence the game and it is arguably the case that perhaps deployment in a forward role should be reserved for away fixtures where there is more emphasis on a counter-attack threat.
At home, Di Maria should be getting on the ball and creating against well-organised and resolute outfits. It’s no coincidence that the former Real Madrid man’s best performances have come when playing the inside-left central midfield role he performed so effectively for the Spanish Giants.
Di Maria is a great option up front when games are likely to be stretched, but for now he is one of United’s best players and the side should be built around him playing in his best position. If that necessitates a return to the diamond formation, so be it.
4) Falcao Forgotten?
With so many returning from injury it was an enticing and fascinating prospect waiting for the squad announcement ahead of the tie. Many had predicted that Falcao may be the one to make way, but few would have foreseen that he would drop out of the squad altogether.
Post-match, Louis van Gaal explained that having played in recent weeks, Falcao didn’t fit the squad for Southampton, but would again be in contention for the Reds’ next tie away to QPR. The Dutchman’s preference for Robin van Persie is obvious, but in a game crying out for a poacher to take a half-chance, the decision not to include the Colombian may have been a poor one.
Match fitness was the excuse wielded for Angel Di Maria and Luke Shaw’s removals, but there is no doubt that the substitutions did not work for United’s manager against a Southampton side who remained fiercely competitive despite changes of their own.
With Robin Van Persie seemingly picking up an injury, it will be interesting to see if Falcao makes a swift return next weekend. The Colombian’s clever movement and tigerish nature was certainly missed against a well-drilled Southampton side.
5) United’s Best Lineup?
With only Ashley Young occupying the physio room, many saw this match as the first true indication of Louis van Gaal’s preferred side. The caveat, of course, is that many players are still returning to full match-fitness, and so the lineup against the Saints should be taken with a pinch of salt in that regard, but it was certainly interesting.
Firstly, the Dutchman opted to continue with the 3-5-2 formation along with, for the most part, playing Wayne Rooney in central midfield. The topic of United’s ‘best’ lineup is, of course, subjective and can often depend on the opposition, but few would have picked the side that Louis van Gaal did against Southampton.
In hindsight, United may have been more effective had Angel Di Maria and Wayne Rooney swapped positions, and Ander Herrera’s continued absence from the starting eleven will frustrate many.
Logic dictates that you play as many of your best players in their best positions as possible, as opposed to trying to accommodate players slightly out of position. In this sense, up front should always be a choice between Van Persie, Rooney, Falcao and Wilson; the no.10 role between Rooney, Mata, Herrera and Di Maria; central midfield between Di Maria, Herrera, Fellaini and Rooney, with the holding role between Carrick and Blind.
The full-backs choose themselves, with contests when wing-backs are deployed between Shaw, Young, Valencia and Rafael. Centre-half remains a position of concern but the options are clear, with Carrick or Blind providing good alternatives if playing three at the back.
United have top quality players; if played in their natural positions, a Champions League place should remain in reach. This author’s preferred lineup is as follows (4-4-2 diamond):
De Gea; Rafael, Jones, Rojo, Shaw; Carrick, Herrera, Di Maria, Rooney (no.10); Falcao, Van Persie
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