Manchester United vs Southampton (13.7.2020)
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Hosts Manchester United have shot out of the blocks in Project Restart, winning five of their last six matches (one of those in the FA Cup) and finally settling into a consistent starting line up with the interregnum allowing star midfielder Paul Pogba to recover from his injury woes. They have started the same eleven in each of their last four Premiership matches. Visitors Southampton are also in good form with a record of 3-1-1 since the resumption of the league, including a hard fought 1 – 0 win against incumbent champions Manchester City in which they rode their luck and the fine form of keep Alex McCarthy to an uneasy victory. Tonight’s game could be similarly touch and go for the Saints with the red side of Manchester scoring three or more in each of the games this settled first team has started. Southampton will look to use their aggressive pressing to unsettle a Manchester United team that has yet to be really contested in their own half since the restart.
First Half Analysis
From the outset it was clear Southampton were not overawed by the occasion, and several clear patterns emerged within the opening 10 minutes of the game. First, United had a clear preference for playing out from the back to their left-hand side, with Nemanja Matic dropping left of Harry Maguire to create a back three with Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka pushing on. When Southampton successfully prevented the ball from being playing forward in wide areas (with Armstrong and Redmond) and inside (with Ward-Prowse or Romeu pushing on), United played backward and laterally away from the continued pressure. From there Lindelöf was forced to play long in the absence of other options, with Greenwood, Fernandes and Wan-Bissaka marked tightly. Second, Southampton had a clear intent to keep their front four relatively tight while in possession to allow for support and combination play, with belated runs from the fullbacks to create avenues to progress the ball in wide areas. This overload caused Matic and Pogba to be more worried about the passes they were screening than getting out to contest switches of play from in front of them.
Southampton were generally sharp in possession and moved the ball quickly on to the next available pass, but the game might have been different had Martial capitalized on a slack first touch from Ward-Prowse. The Southampton set piece specialist had dropped in between the Saints center backs and his errant touch allowed Martial to rob him and charge toward a retreating Alex McCarthy, who stayed big and spared his captain’s blushes.
United were finding relatively little joy in terms of playing forward thanks to continuous Southampton pressure. The first goal came from this pressure, with Lindelöf being drawn to the left side to cover for Harry Maguire. With Lindelöf passing the ball back to De Gea from United’s left hand side, De Gea’s normal short circulation pass was not available, and so he played it up the gut to Pogba. Pogba had Lindelöf underneath at this point as an easy set but chose to turn at the top of his own penalty area and lost out to Danny Ings. Nathan Redmond recovered the loose ball from Pogba’s resulting foul and broke into United’s penalty area before crossing for Stuart Armstrong to finish at the far post.
With this goal United appeared to make a bit of an adjustment, with Luke Shaw and Wan-Bissaka staying deeper and available for uncontested rotational (rather than penetrative) passes from the United center backs and Martial switching positions with Rashford. This immediately yielded success in beating the press, with Shaw able to turn, play accurately forward to Martial and receiving his striker’s return pass beyond the initial Southampton press. From there Shaw played an early cross to Rashford in behind, but his smart finish was disallowed on account of mistiming his run and straying offside.
Southampton continued to pressure United, with Pogba being dispossessed just inside the Southampton half but the counterattack petering out after an overhit through ball. United’s circulation continued to look improved and created opportunities for them to play forward in wide areas on both sides of the field. This advanced possession allowed Pogba to receive facing forward in position to put the ball into Southampton’s penalty area. Martial’s initial success in taking the ball down and away from Jack Stephens drew in Kyle Walker-Peters, creating enough space for Manchester United’s number 9 to slip in Rashford for his 16th Premier League goal of the season.
The safer passes to the fullbacks again counted for United’s second, with Wan-Bissaka able to find Pogba in a central pocket against Southampton’s press. With Pogba free to play forward he found Fernandes behind Southampton’s midfield, who passed the ball on for Martial to have a run at Kyle Walker-Peters. The fullback lost contain and allowed Martial to come inside. Jack Stephens was slow getting out and Martial finished powerfully toward the near post, putting Manchester United in front going into the water break.
United seemed settled down from seeing the results of their adjustments, and Southampton seemed a bit hesitant to commit their central midfielders forward in the attacking half, resulting in more possession for United in the attacking half. Southampton clogged the middle and attempted to squeeze United on the flanks as the looked to make inroads there, generally limiting United to possession around the penalty area without ever really allowing them inside it. United generally counterpressed well in these situations when they did lose the ball, forcing Southampton to play early long balls that were uncontested recoveries or favorable duels for the United defenders. The switch from Martial and Rashford also appeared to be more of a spontaneous thing than a strict switch, with Rashford appearing more prominently down United’s left.
The most noteworthy moment after the game had settled was a late challenge from Oriol Romeu on Mason Greenwood which was acknowledged by the referee in the form of advantage played but went unsanctioned in the referee’s notebook, when it was at very least a yellow and could have been worse given the ball was very much gone was Romeu raked his studs down Greenwood’s Achilles.
Southampton started the second half spritely, again getting at United in wide areas. They had the first chance of the period with Shaw twice denying Walker-Peters but unable to move the ball on before Stuart Armstrong was able to double-down on him and abscond with the ball. Adams and Ings both threatened runs in behind, driving United’s defense deeper and creating a pocket for Nathan Redmond to receive in the left half-space with a chance to run at defenders. Initially there was no further wide threat so Wan-Bissaka squared up to Redmond, but as Che Adams overlapped from his striker position Lindelöf sent his fullback to deal with that threat and stepped out. Redmond was quick to pull the trigger as United attempted to transfer the responsibility of pressure, ultimately pulling his shot wide of the near post.
Southampton again exploited Pogba’s hesitance to pressure for the second shot of the second half, with Armstrong running off Matic onto a chipped ball into the penalty area from Romeu. The Scot laid it back to Golden Boot hopeful Danny Ings who sold Victor Lindelof on an attempted shot before having the real effort blocked by Nemanja Matic. There was a hopeful penalty shout from Southampton when Armstrong backed into Maguire as United looked to scramble the ball clear, but the referee gave nothing and the Video Assistant Referee was similarly unmoved.
The game continued in stop-start fashion with lots of fouls, throw-ins and pressure forcing both teams into errors and playing for territory rather than risk turnovers in their own half. There was also a lack of sharpness to both attacks in the final third, perhaps speaking to the congested fixture list since the restart beginning to take its’ toll. There were a few half moments before both managers looked to affect the game with their substitutions, namely a long distance Rashford snapshot after a handball from Kyle Walker-Peters prevented a more penetrative pass and a Southampton counter after Rashford saved a mishit pass from Bruno Fernandes. Rashford’s momentum carried him out of the pitch and Southampton eventually worked the ball into the area he would have been screening and found an easy forward pass to Kyle Walker-Peters. The fullback’s low driven cross nutmegged both Luke Shaw and Harry Maguire but evaded Ćhe Adams at the far post.
The aforementioned substitutions, simultaneously made on 64 minutes, spoke to the competing objectives of the two managers. For United it was Fred on for Paul Pogba, who had provided a moment of quality for United’s first goal but was also responsible for Southampton’s opener, while Southampton brought on Shane Long for Ćhe Adams. The priorities of Manchester United were also clearly demonstrated by De Gea waving his defense upward on ensuing goal kick rather than risking playing out.
United had two more almost moments as the game continued with chances derived from the individual qualities of their forward players. First, Rashford ghosted Walker-Peters with a reverse elastic before finding Martial making a run in behind from in between the two center backs. Rashford continued his run into the area and was found by Martial’s cutback inside the six, only for his first-time effort to be stuffed point-blank by the covering Ryan Bertrand. Second, after the drinks break and substitutions by both sides (Will Smallbone on for Stuart Armstrong, Brandon Williams on for Luke Shaw, who appeared to twist an ankle), Martial blocked Stephens’ forward past and was first to the rebound inside the United half. Martial ran away from Stephens, around Bednarek who had slipped in trying to offer cover, and all the way to the Southampton penalty area, where Stephens had recovered just enough to disrupt the Frenchman’s shot.
Solskjaer’s intent to protect what United had achieved up to the point was cemented by his substitutions in the 84th minute, with Daniel James coming on for Mason Greenwood and Scott McTominay coming on for Bruno Fernandes. Neither Fernandes nor Greenwood had been particularly influential up to that point. Greenwood was a victim of United’s greater quality in building down the left and Southampton’s good low block defending not allowing United to switch the point of the attack in the attacking half. Fernandes was also starved by Southampton’s pressure, with the driven, line-breaking passes toward him from Matic and Pogba that were crucial parts of United’s attack in prior games being denied by Southampton’s central superiority and active defending. With this pair of changes Fred moved into the #10 role with McTominay alongside Matic in the double pivot.
While the Red Devils did a good job of positioning and being first to crosses and long balls, their unconvincing clearances from those wins allowed Southampton to maintain possession in the attacking half and to continue to probe United for weakness. They found it down their left, with Bertrand drawing Wan-Bissaka out before laying the ball back to Romeu to find Redmond on the left side of United’s penalty area. Redmond duly took on the covering Matic and drew an excellent save from De Gea after driving into the box.
With United having shown their hand by using all three substitution intervals, Hassenhütl withdrew central midfielder Oriol Romeu for striker Michael Obafemi, seemingly to play as a right forward with Smallbone moving centrally alongside Ward-Prowse. The game was hardly settled long enough to get a good look at the Austrian’s intent before an aerial duel between Walker-Peters and Brandon Williams resulted in a head-to-head collision and Williams being unable to continue. Solskjær used the lengthy injury stoppage to reconfigure his team, directing them into a 5-3-1 with Matic and Fred on the left side of the back five. This narrow midfield gave United limited ability to screen passes into wide areas while also protecting the middle. Southampton took the space given to them and Redmond earned what would prove a pivotal corner off of Wan-Bissaka in the sixth minute of added time.
United defended with six zonally inside the six against four Southampton attackers and were man-to-man with the three runners Southampton had around the penalty. In both this instance and an earlier corner in the 87th minute following De Gea’s save on Redmond, United seemed willing to allow Southampton to have free player in the box and prioritized the numbers they had in the six. On both these corners the two players near De Gea made the same runs, and on this second occasion Ward-Prowse’s choice or execution was better and Southampton capitalized. Bednarek came back toward the six in line with the near post to win the flick on, while Obafemi backed into Lindelöf, obstructing his movement toward the ball. Lindelöf was able to get goal side of the striker but not ball side, and as a result Obafemi was first to the flick-on and stabbed the ball home from close range to give Southampton a share of the spoils.