Bleacher Report's Sam Tighe dissects two of the Premier League's form teams, as Southampton prepare to face Manchester United at Old Trafford. It's the latest edition of Tactical Watch, in association with Utilita Energy...
Thursday night saw Manchester United set a Premier League record: they became the first team to win four consecutive matches by three goals, underlining their red-hot form as they challenge for a Champions League spot.
Southampton are the next side up on the schedule, and while some may simplify their task to a mere “avoiding becoming No 5 in that run,” Ralph Hasenhüttl and co. will see it differently.
They’ll point to their own excellent form since football returned, and specifically the last two performances in which both heroic defensive grit and swashbuckling, incisive attacking play have been present, and set themselves the task of actually halting the Red Devils in their tracks.
Here, we discuss the three keys to doing exactly that.
A staple of Southampton’s play under Hasenhüttl has been intense midfield work “against the ball” (as the Austrian puts it), ensuring opponents have little time to think and even less time to act.
We’ve seen of late how effective that can be, either in holding strong opponents at bay (see: Manchester City) or completely overwhelming weaker ones (see: Everton, Watford). And it’ll be crucial once again vs Manchester United, going a long way to deciding how the game pans out.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær has used the same midfield trio – Nemanja Matić, Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes – in each of the last four games, and they’ve run each one.
Let them find their groove and you’re in trouble; Bruno will float into dangerous, game-breaking positions, while Pogba will start pinging pinpoint passes to the flanks, switching play and placing Saints on the back foot.
It’s imperative to prevent both of those things happening from a defensive standpoint, while from an offensive one, there’s turnover potential to be had in pressuring them – as Aston Villa demonstrated on Thursday, when Trézéguet robbed Matić, strode forward and smacked the post.
The bite and stamina in both James Ward-Prowse and Oriol Romeu’s game figures to be extremely important here, with Danny Ings dropping in to harass Matić also likely required to fully disrupt the flow.
Mason Greenwood’s “weak” foot
Goals flow throughout United’s side, and although the combination of players Solskjær is using feels fresh and new, every player is a known, established quality, their strengths and virtues well established... except one.
Opposing players are still figuring him out in the same way fans and neutrals are, and it’s proving a difficult task. Chief among the reasons why is the fact that he seemingly has no weak foot, able to shoot with deadly accuracy and explosive power off either his left or his right.
His brace against AFC Bournemouth was made up of a power strike from each foot, and although the left appears to be his favoured leg, his right-footed goal against Villa nearly took the net off.
He presents a rare dilemma for opponents, as it’s not actually possible to show him on to a weaker foot and in the process shepherd him away from goal or into a corner. What do you do when facing up a player like that, who also houses speed and burst in his repertoire of skills?
If Hasenhüttl and Saints come up with a solution, they’ll be the first.
Something to full-back on
The contrast of full-backs set to feature in this match is quite something, with each battle offering something different.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka is extremely difficult to beat one-on-one, while Nathan Redmond is extremely difficult to stop. Something will have to give, and it wouldn’t surprise to see Redmond drift centrally with the ball to get away from Wan-Bissaka, distribute, then drift back and sneak in behind him at the far post when the cross comes in.
Said cross will probably come from Kyle Walker-Peters, a revelation in the last 3.5 games, whose delivery needs to be precise. He’ll need to be extremely mindful going the other way too, as he’ll be matched up against both the speed of Marcus Rashford and the clever overlapping tendencies of Luke Shaw – another player who has really found form during lockdown football.
It’ll likely be Ryan Bertrand coming face-to-face with Greenwood, and Hasenhüttl may well be relieved that it’s by far his most experienced defender tasked with containing the youngster.
Between the four, they offer an eclectic mix of experience, speed, overlapping, crossing and defensive acumen, and who gets the better of who will go a long way to deciding who wins the game.