So far this season it has been extremely difficult to accurately judge Southampton and Manchester United.
Both had impressed in flashes of their matches so far and indeed the Red Devils raised the hopes of their fanbase with that impressive 4-0 opening day victory over rivals Chelsea but neither has displayed any consistency.
This match therefore felt important before kick off. Three points for either of these two sides could see their outlook drastically change going into the first international break of the season.
Southampton came into the match with momentum having won last week 2-0 against Brighton and then 1-0 in midweek in a Carabao Cup match against Fulham.
Manchester United, on the other hand, had struggled since that opening victory over Chelsea with a draw away to Wolves and then a surprising 2-1 defeat at home to Crystal Palace.
Unrest appears to be growing amongst United fans and they are unhappy that the club has lost two forward players, Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez, with no replacements coming in.
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This was especially relevant given that Anthony Martial, who had been playing as the centre-forward, would miss this match due to injury. This left Marcus Rashford as the only established forward player in the squad with youngsters Mason Greenwood and Tahith Chong starting on the bench so far.
This unrest also extends to the midfield with Spaniard Ander Herrera having been allowed to leave in the summer on a free. Central options for United coach Ole Gunnar Solskjaer again feel limited.
Southampton fans, on the other hand, appear more content with the clubs summer business as the clubs Austrian coach Ralph Hasenhuttl continues to try to imprint his brand of high energy pressing football on the club.
As mentioned above, the big pre-match question surrounded the loss of Martial and his replacement for United. Fans were excited at the prospect of academy graduate Mason Greenwood being given his first start by his boyhood club.
Instead, Solskjaer sprung something of a surprise with Andreas Pereira, normally a 6 or an 8 in the centre of the midfield picked to start, We also saw Jesse Lingard, without a goal or an assist in 2019, dropped to the bench with Juan Mata coming in to replace him.
Southampton were missing their exciting summer signing Moussa Djenepo, after his excellent goal last week against Brighton, and Nathan Redmond with the unpredictable Sofiane Boufal coming back into the starting lineup as Hasenhuttl continued his use of a 4-2-2-2 system in the opening weeks of the season.
Early problems for both sides
Manchester United were able to take an early lead when one of their summer signings, Daniel James, cut inside from the left and found the far top corner with Southampton goalkeeper Angus Gunn stranded. That individual moment of inspiration however papered over the cracks as both sides struggled to progress the ball forward from deep areas effectively.
There was an interesting clash of systems with United, on paper, lining up in their standard 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 variation whilst Southampton continued to play a 4-2-2-2. You would imagine that this would create positional advantages for one side over the other but this never seemed to be the case.
Here we can see Southampton looking to build out from the back against a relatively passive press from United. The right-back for Southampton, Cedric, has stayed deep on the same line as the other two central defenders while Kevin Danso has advanced higher on the left. Even then though he has only advanced to the same line as the deepest central midfielder.
This passive structure for Southampton meant that they were unable to bypass the press from United in order to advance the ball safely forward. Even a pass to the left side, where they appear to have space, would be covered given the positioning of the United pressing players who were able to shift across to close the space.
This passive structure in the first phase of possession was a constant throughout for Southampton as they were slow in progressing the ball. This made it easier for United to effectively close down the space as the ball did come forward.
The ball progression from United was equally poor in the first half as they struggled to find the space to play into midfield. This generally resulted in more direct passes looking to release Marcus Rashford centrally. A strategy that was flawed as the two Southampton central defenders were able to anticipate this pass easily.
The image above shows United in possession of the ball through their Swedish central defender Victor Lindelof with right-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka having advanced to a slightly higher line. Two of the three central midfielders, Paul Pogba and Scott McTominay are on the same line in the centre of midfield and on the opposite side Ashley Young has stayed deep.
As with Southampton above this kind of structure made it extremely easy for the opposition to defend and deny them space.
United issues in final third
If United struggled to progress the ball effectively in the initial build-up phase they struggled equally as they moved into the final third. It was unclear initially whether Andreas Pereira or Juan Mata would play on the attacking line but it was the former who played from what appeared to be the wide right.
He tucked in constantly occupying the half-space and leaving the wide areas open. This was just one of the issues as United looked to break into the final third.
Throughout the earlier stages of the match there were issues with the occupation of the ‘10’ space for United as their attacking players emptied that space to occupy the highest line or the wide areas. We see an example of this above with the ball in the wide left space.
Juan Mata makes a run out to that side from the central area and occupies the same space as another player on a similar line. Marcus Rashford has also made a vertical run towards the penalty area and the result is a huge gap centrally in the United attacking structure.
This central space, where a 10 would be in an attacking structure is the ideal area that the ball should be played into from that position. A player in this space receiving the ball would be able to turn and drive forward to the penalty area or look to connect with the forward players as the ball progresses.
Here we see United in transition. Without anyone occupying the wide forward area on the right of the pitch they often found it difficult to move the ball quickly as they transitioned to the attacking phase.
Wan-Bissaka is an extremely effective right-back but his performance in the attacking phase leaves something to be desired still. Rashford would make vertical runs centrally and Daniel James was an effective outlet on the left but with Pereira tucking inside all of the time the space on the right was largely unused.
United poor passing
We have already covered the issues that United had with progressing the ball and pointed out that they were not using space on the field the way that they perhaps should have been.
Even in the stages of the game where the positioning was better, however, the execution of the passes was poor and as such the play would break down before United were able to create a chance.
Here we see United in a favourable position as the ball is played out to James on the left of the midfield. He has Pogba, in a rare move into a good position, positioned in a pocket of space between the Southampton defenders.
As the ball is moved into this area, however, James does not take a good angle on the run forward and Pogba is crowded out by the Southampton defence.
This time we see an opportunity for United to use the emptied space out on the right-hand side of the pitch.
The initial pass moves to the centre before the ball is set back to Nemanja Matic, on as a substitute. As Wan-Bissaka moves forward to occupy the space on the right, a good pass from the Serbian midfielder would have freed the young English right-back to move high into a large pocket of space. Instead, the ball was played directly out of play for a throw-in.
It is difficult to find any real positives for either team in this match. Perhaps you could argue that Southampton will be more pleased with the point given that they were down to ten men in the second half. For United you have to believe that if they do not find answers to their lack of attacking fluidity then the coaching staff are going to start coming under real pressure.
Both sides now have the international break to regroup but their form must improve soon.
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