Tactical Watch: Midfield press key to stopping United


Sam Tighe takes a closer look at how Southampton can upset an in-form Manchester United side at St Mary's. It's the latest edition of Tactical Watch, in association with

This weekend’s opponents, Manchester United, were perhaps the standout team from the Premier League’s 2021/22 opening weekend.

They put five past historic rivals Leeds United in an emphatic victory, delivering an assured, functioning team performance on a day where so many others looked as though the restart had come at least seven days too soon.

Since that victory, Edinson Cavani has returned to the group, Jadon Sancho has completed a second week of training and Raphaël Varane has signed for the club – but there’s an easy case to be made for Ole Gunnar Solksjær to roll out the same, impressive XI to take on Southampton.

It should be noted that, tactically speaking, United are essentially Leeds’ kryptonite. They beat them 6-2 last season and 5-1 last Saturday; the expansive, stretched style of play Marcelo Bielsa coaches in Yorkshire does not seem to mesh well with United’s physicality in midfield, quick combinations up front and ability to drive into open spaces.

But there were still clear lessons to be learned in how United will look to attack moving forward, and those lessons centre on Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba.

Pogba ostensibly played left wing – as he has done for most of 2021 – but drifted into central spaces frequently to find the ball. Fernandes ostensibly played as the No. 10 but acted more like a striker, constantly running on the shoulder of the defence and seeking space in behind. Mason Greenwood, supposedly the No. 9, split wide to accommodate that, while Dan James stayed very wide on the right to open up space for others.

The movements were natural and fluid, resulting in several goals. The openness of Leeds’ midfield aided it all – they fielded Rodrigo, a striker, in central midfield and Euro 2020 star Kalvin Phillips was injured – but the combinations were sharp and the movements were ruthless. It was hard to know what was more impressive at full-time: Fernandes’ hat-trick, or Pogba’s four assists.

Saints (and everyone else facing United from here) will know an open, spacious midfield spells trouble. Effective pressing is needed to stymie Scott McTominay on the ball and reduce the service to Pogba, but the space also needs to be constricted. The Red Devils are too big, too fast and too good at exploiting gaps.

Luke Shaw presents another major threat shuttling down the left. Pogba’s movements toward the centre create a lane for him to use and he’s become a huge part of how they build attacks, either crossing or surging into the box to overload.

Greenwood’s ability to shoot with either foot, on the run, with zero backlift, is a constant thorn for defences. The old trick of showing them onto their “weaker side” isn’t an option, and he needs just a sliver of space to get a shot away.

With confidence sky-high after such an opening performance, United are a tough assignment for any team in world football right now. You have to match their physicality and speed, whilst simultaneously stifling their off-the-cuff combinations in the final third.