Sam Tighe previews Manchester United's visit to Southampton in his latest Tactical Watch column, in association with Sportsbet.io.
This weekend Southampton welcome Manchester United to St Mary’s as they look to make it four home victories – and four home clean sheets! – on the bounce.
A win could take them into the Premier League’s top four as we approach the quarter-mark for the season – a just reward for an exceptional start.
But to achieve that they must overcome a United side who have done nothing but win away from home in the Premier League this season. A perfect 3/3 record meets Southampton’s own run of 3/3 at home, with something surely set to give.
Intriguing midfield clash
Ole Gunnar Solskjær has cycled through a plethora of midfield options this season, seemingly landing on a more functional base of two to support an attacking band of three.
Fred has been a near-constant in that setup – while Nemanja Matić and Scott McTominay rotate into the other spot – the Brazilian demonstrating strong ball-winning and covering a lot of ground in the process.
The way Southampton’s midfield moves, whoever plays on the left of the pivot (Matić if he plays, Fred otherwise) will have the daunting task of tracking Stuart Armstrong’s clever movements infield.
The Scot has been integral to many of Saints’ best moves of late, his clever drifting from out to in causing all sorts of issues for opponents in marking and coverage.
In recent weeks he’s had Wolves, Newcastle United and Aston Villa falling over themselves as he picks them apart, meaning United will have to be ultra-organised and ultra-communicative if they want to avoid being added to that list.
Bruno Fernandes runs point
There’s no doubt whom the epicentre of United’s attack is: Bruno Fernandes.
He’s the club’s top goalscorer this season (6), joint-top assister (3), has taken the most shots (20), created the most shooting opportunities (38) and takes the vast majority of free-kicks and corners.
He has license to try things without repercussions. If it doesn’t work out, he’ll try again. And again. That perhaps explains his pass completion rate (74.7%, the lowest of all regular starters) and average distance from which his shots are taken (a whopping 25.7 yards).
Simply put, he’s the man.
United have become reliant on him to create and score – perhaps overly so, you might argue. The extremely talented cast of attackers around him seem to look for him first, marking him out as the obvious man to gameplan for, and look to have less and less trust in their own abilities.
Marcus Rashford’s improving form and influence is steadily bringing a bit more balance to proceedings, but more is needed.
Edinson Cavani’s fresh dimension
Playing with Anthony Martial up front is conducive to a more intricate style of attack; he drops off the forward line to link play and bring his midfielders into play and into better shooting positions.
That style of play comes at a cost, though: shots. Martial has taken just seven shots in the Premier League this season, with four coming against West Bromwich Albion last weekend.
Cavani is a different breed of forward: one whose movement and off-the-shoulder running is classed in the elite tier.
There’s an argument that United’s most effective route to goal on Sunday is via longer passes in behind to feed his runs – especially when you take into account the ferocity of Southampton’s pressing game.
He’s all much more likely to let fly – he’s taken five shots in the league despite not yet starting a game – and after getting 90 minutes on Tuesday in the Champions League, Solskjær will no doubt be mulling the idea of starting him at St Mary’s.
Martial and Cavani are chalk and cheese stylistically, so Saints’ defence will have to be prepared for the unique, different challenges they pose.