Bleacher Report's Sam Tighe compares the challenge facing Ralph Hasenhüttl up against Ole Gunnar Solskjaer with that of predecessor Mark Hughes against José Mourinho only three months ago...
Given the time of year, Southampton’s 2-2 draw with Manchester United at St Mary’s back in December proved an oddly consequential result.
It transpired to be Saints’ last fixture under the stewardship of Mark Hughes, the club appointing Ralph Hasenhüttl as his successor soon after, and marked the beginning of the end for José Mourinho in the other dugout – he lasted just another 17 days.
That means both sides meet each other “fresh” this weekend at Old Trafford; Hasenhuttl and new United manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, have never gone head to head, and the makeup of their respective sides is so vastly different compared to three months ago, any notes on previous clashes are virtually useless.
The United side Saints last faced was in the midst of a full-blown Mourinho crisis. Their bizarre five-man defensive line included midfielders Scott McTominay and Nemanja Matić, then a further three central players – Marouane Fellaini, Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba – were fielded ahead of them.
It was the sort of negative approach that typified Mourinho’s final throes as manager, and the fact they went 2-0 down in the first 20 minutes surprised no one.
Nowadays the feel to the team is rather different. Logic prevails with regard to playing positions, with United’s star men put in a position to succeed.
What’s followed is a run of 12 wins from 15 games under Solskjaer’s watch – a sequence that includes victories over Tottenham, Chelsea and Arsenal – the only loss coming to Paris Saint-Germain.
Central to this charge has been Solskjaer’s ability to inspire the talent in United’s ranks. From Luke Shaw and Victor Lindelöf in defence, through Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera in midfield to Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford in attack, the Norwegian has unlocked a number of players who were either underperforming or not featuring under the previous regime.
It’s resulted in a truckload of talented players finding form and confidence at the same time, and some of the attacking (and counter-attacking) displays have been breathtaking. They pass and move quickly, interchanging and roaming, and drive forward with speed and purpose.
Rashford’s the first-choice striker and runs the channels between defenders relentlessly, with Pogba picking him out with beautiful passes dropped in behind.
Herrera’s box-to-box nature has been rediscovered and he’s been everywhere, while Lindelöf’s leading of the defensive has been a big boon to Solskjaer, who has had to chop and change in that area. Shaw’s playing his best football since his time at St Mary’s.
Perhaps one thing Solskjaer has got wrong, though, has been his reluctance to rotate his first-choice XI – particularly in midfield. The injury pileup United are currently battling is likely more coincidence than consequence, but Saints catch them in the midst of a gruelling schedule – a week after Liverpool, three days before PSG away – and with a slew of first-choice players out.
United could feasibly line-up on Saturday with Nemanja Matić, Juan Mata, Herrera, Lingard and Martial sat in the stands. They did exactly that in midweek against Crystal Palace and found it difficult to establish a rhythm; a couple of sweet goals (in conjunction with some Palace misses) bailing them out.
That rhythm evaded them in part because players are coming into the XI cold. Scott McTominay now has two successive starts under his belt, but Wednesday was the first time Fred had taken to a pitch in over a month, while it was also Alexis Sánchez’s first start in close to a month.
It’s this type of uncertainty Saints must take advantage of. United’s injury list means they aren’t the slick machine they represented a month ago, and they will undoubtedly have one eye on Paris the following week, too. Can Ralph’s men capitalise?