Sam Tighe looks ahead to Southampton's Premier League trip to Manchester United in his latest Tactical Watch column, in association with Sportsbet.io.
We go again.
Southampton have the chance to put Saturday’s rollercoaster disappointment against Aston Villa to the back of their minds with a trip to Old Trafford on Tuesday night.
The Red Devils’ form at home soared over the Christmas period but came crashing back down last week with a defeat to 20th-placed Sheffield United. They followed that up with a goalless draw at Arsenal, meaning they’re perhaps a little unsure of themselves for the first time in months.
To take advantage, Saints will have to battle back from their own off-patch of form and a mounting injury list. Here are the three keys to doing so.
Despite a raft of injuries and a crammed schedule, it was notable just how effective Southampton’s pressing game looked against Aston Villa on Saturday.
Those well-rehearsed pincer movements in midfield trapped Villa time and again, robbing them of the ball and preventing them from gaining any essence of control over midfield. It meant service to Ollie Watkins in the channels was limited, and when he did receive the ball, he was never well set to shoot.
If pressure in midfield was important against Villa, it’s absolutely paramount against Manchester United. Unless Ralph Hasenhüttl is prepared to set aside the usual energetic approach and sit in to remove space for counter-attacks – something Arsenal did to good effect recently – Saints will need to aggressively close off and pressurise United’s ball-players.
The biggest issue here will be keeping a lid on Paul Pogba. The unflappable Frenchman‘s passing range is magnificent and he’s so, so cool under pressure; he represents one of the most difficult assignments any pressing team can encounter.
If he’s deployed deeper in midfield, he’ll look to release speedy runners – and in particular Marcus Rashford – in behind the defence whenever possible. We may see Rashford move back to the left flank to test Southampton in the injury-hit right-back zone, meaning disrupting Pogba’s ability to pick passes becomes the biggest key to the game.
You can’t watch a Manchester United game nowadays without noticing the overwhelming impact of Luke Shaw. Back to full fitness and sharpness, he’s been fantastic since the turn of the year.
The way he’s rampaging up and down the left flank reminds of the Shaw of old; the one Southampton waved farewell to back in 2014. He represents a serious threat on the overlap, is consistently getting into the opponent’s box, and is showcasing some stand-up 1v1 defensive work at the other end too – recently comfortably dealing with Mohamed Salah for 90 minutes.
Shaw’s impact moving forward perhaps explains why Ole Gunnar Solskjær has utilised Rashford on the right flank of late, spreading the thrust and speed they provide across the pitch.
Whether they double up on one flank or it’s just Shaw, he represents a real threat pushing forward from deep and Saints’ right-sided midfielders – perhaps Stuart Armstrong and James Ward-Prowse – will have to block and obstruct as much as possible to prevent him from gaining steam.
Southampton’s prowess from set-pieces is well established. Opposing fans hold their collective breath when James Ward-Prowse lines up from 22 yards as if it were a penalty, while his dipping near-post corners can take on a devastating life of their own at times.
Only West Ham (11) have scored more set-piece goals in the league this season than Saints (10); while conversely, only four teams have conceded more from set-pieces than Manchester United (8).
Corners have proved particularly problematic, with Sheffield United, Leeds United and Manchester City netting from those in the last two months, while a quick free-kick from Villa in January caught everyone off-guard and led to a goal.
Whether it’s communication, concentration, positioning or a mix of all three, it’s an area for Southampton to probe at to see if they can add their name to the above list of recent tormentors.