Tactics writer Sam Tighe previews Southampton's visit to Old Trafford to face a Manchester United side whose fortunes have fluctuated in recent matches.
The good news for Saints is that United have played a Europa League game between then and now, so frustrations and retributions have already been worked out of their systems somewhat. That being said, this is the first Premier League fixture since the 7-0 defeat at the hands of their great rivals – so there’ll still be a burning desire to set the record straight.
It’s quite rare that one of the country’s top teams finds itself in a position where it might feel the need to prove itself. Erik ten Hag certainly seemed to think that was the case on Thursday, naming an unchanged XI to the one at Anfield.
Add in the fact that Old Trafford has been the scene of some difficult nights for Saints in the past and this promises to prove a great mental test for Rubén Sellés and his men.
United’s threat undoubtedly begins with Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes; the former has 14 Premier League goals to his name in what is surely his best-ever season, while Fernandes has regained his mojo post-World Cup.
Their positions are variable rather than fixed, with Fernandes enjoying drifting to the right as well as operating centrally and Rashford given the ability to attack whichever channel or zone he thinks he can work the best. It makes them very difficult to plan for.
Further complicating matters is Wout Weghorst, who is yet to score in the league, but does a fine job of occupying and distracting defenders in order to help his teammates find space. He drops off the forward line and drags centre-backs with him, allowing Rashford to dart in.
United are also a big threat from set-pieces, with Casemiro – a man who has transformed their midfield – seemingly always on the end of a whipped Luke Shaw delivery.
Saints will surely take their lead from Liverpool, who successfully pulled United’s midfield apart with clever attacking positioning and runs. This is easiest done from goal kicks, where a clipped pass into the likes of Kyle Walker-Peters or Kamaldeen Sulemana could allow them to collect and run with it.
The key is to play over the United press, wide of the midfield guard, and therefore give Raphaël Varane and Co. difficult decisions to make as to whether to step out and engage, or drop off instead.
Ché Adams’s return to Saints’ XI last weekend was a huge boost, his effect on the energy and running power on the front line clear to see. His movements into the channels could once again be key to working the space United leave in behind.
Lastly, it would be somewhat fitting if James Ward-Prowse equals David Beckham’s Premier League free-kick record at Old Trafford – the scene of so many of Beckham’s over the years.
De Gea; Wan-Bissaka, Varane, Martínez, Malacia; Casemiro, Fred; Fernandes, Sancho, Rashford; Weghorst.
-The same XI has started the last two games, so some rotation is expected
-United’s front four is flexible and doesn’t stick to positions, so it can be tough to track
-Casemiro’s been almighty in midfield since signing – and offers a goal threat too
-In Christian Eriksen’s absence, Fred has risen to the task of partnering Casemiro