Sam Tighe assesses an intriguing battle between Ralf Rangnick and Ralph Hasenhüttl - two managers with similar philosophies. It's the latest edition of Tactical Watch, in association with Sportsbet.io.
The games continue to flow thick and fast, with Southampton travelling to Old Trafford this weekend to face Manchester United – the third game in the space of just eight days.
Intriguingly, it sets the scene for an epic clash between two managers who are not only bred from the same tactical stock, but worked together for two years in Red Bull’s football structure. It’s Ralf vs Ralph as Rangnick, who godfathered the style of play synonymous with Leipzig and, now, Southampton, takes on Hasenhüttl – a man he hired back in 2016 to enact his vision.
Adapting to Rangnick’s preferred style – an aggressive, press-heavy approach out of a 4-2-2-2 formation – has had its ups and downs; it’s so, so different to what Ole Gunnar Solskjær implemented, and switching things up mid-season adds an extra layer of difficulty. Manchester United are currently on a development track Saints fans will recognise clearly from 2018.
They’re a more proactive side off the ball now, clearly, and they’re slowly starting to press more cohesively and wisely. The success of that can be measured easily: in the first half against Burnley in midweek, United allowed zero shots on goal; in the first half against Middlesbrough in the FA Cup, they allowed just one. That’s defensive suffocation, starting from the front.
The issue Rangnick faces is maintaining that intensity, as United’s second halves look extremely different to their first halves. Opponents have tended to gradually find their footing and go on to score; Burnley did it, Boro did it, and even a two-goal cushion couldn’t secure a win against Aston Villa.
A recent compromise in shape has been made, with United shifting from 4-2-2-2 to more of a 4-2-3-1. Paul Pogba’s return to fitness may have influenced that, or perhaps moving Bruno Fernandes back into the No. 10 space felt paramount.
Either way – and despite some disappointing recent results – the Red Devils are steadily improving and players are coming back into form. Luke Shaw rediscovering his groove has brought back the left-sided bias in attack, with his progressive runs and link-up play crucial to getting the ball forward. The more his relationship with Jadon Sancho matures, the better Sancho looks.
A common pattern of play is Shaw and Sancho combining down the left, playing very close together and exchanging short give-and-goes. The ball is then moved inward to Fernandes, who is adept at finding enough space to pass or shoot from 25 yards.
Defensively speaking, this is likely to be Southampton’s chief concern, bringing into focus the importance of the right side of the defensive unit. Be it Tino Livramento or Kyle Walker-Peters, an intense physical and mental battle is in store.
There’s also success to be had in pressing United’s build-up much higher up, as they’ve had trouble progressing the ball through midfield when under pressure. Southampton already wrought havoc in the reverse fixture doing this and the opponent’s personnel has not changed.
Finally, it’s crucial for Saints to remember that the longer the game goes on, the more susceptible United have tended to be of late. First half blitzes are common – but so are flat second halves. Perseverance, determination and better fitness levels could well lead to a late, great flurry.