It was another three points for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as Manchester United hosted Southampton in the Premier League on Saturday. The Norwegian manager once again went unbeaten in the league, claiming all three points against Ralph Hasenhuttl‘s team. But the team threated by relegation from the Premier League didn’t roll over easily. Find out how Southampton nearly upset Manchester United in this Premier League tactical analysis.
The hosts lined up in a familiar 4-3-1-2 formation, maintaining a familiar back-four guarding David De Gea. In the midfield, Paul Pogba retained his position as the left central midfielder and Scott McTominay remained as the holding midfielder in place of the injured Nemanja Matic. Andreas Pereira returned to the squad after an impressive performance against Liverpool, despite being dropped against Crystal Palace. Alexis Sanchez started in the hole behind strikers Romelu Lukaku and Marcus Rashford.
Southampton maintained a defensive system, lining up in a 5-3-2. Angus Gunn started in goal with Jan Bednarek, Maya Yoshida and Jannik Vestergaard making up the three centre-backs. Ryan Bertrand and Yan Valery were wing-backs while Oriol Romeu sat in front of the defenders as a defensive midfielder. James Ward-Prowse and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg were the central midfielders, and Nathan Redmond and Charlie Austin lead the line as strikers.
While Southampton’s goals will take the headlines, their defensive efforts frustrated Manchester United for most of the game. In the first 15 minutes, Manchester United wasted a few great goalscoring opportunities, suggesting that Southampton were defensively vulnerable. But as the first half progressed, it became harder and harder for the Manchester United attackers to produce anything substantial.
The five-at-the-back system allowed Southampton’s centre-backs to overwhelm Rashford and Lukaku while also preventing Ashley Young and Luke Shaw from finding free space on the flanks. The three midfielders sat in front of the back line attempting to cut out any passes into the strikers’ feet.
In the above image, we see Scott McTominay possess the ball at the halfway line. Southampton’s defence sits in a flat back-five with the midfield-trio sitting in front. While Marcus Rashford occupies the most advanced position, Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez sit wide. Andreas Pereira is the only player in between the lines, but any pass to him would be cut out by the midfield.
In this position, Manchester United find space to play the ball freely from deep positions but have limited options going forward. Because of Southampton’s five-at-the-back system, Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez cannot find space, despite occupying wide positions.
Bellow, we can see a similar scenario, but this time, Ashley Young occupies the ball in a wide area. Once again, Andreas Pereira attempts to find open space, but Nathan Redmond prevents a direct ball into his feet. Marcus Rashford finds space between defenders, but Ryan Bertrand is positioned to cut out any pass to the strikers’ feet also.
The above position also shows Manchester United’s inability to find meaningful space in advanced positions. Alexis Sanchez and Romelu Lukaku take themselves out of the play by sitting too far right. If Sanchez shifted between the lines in a more central position, he would occupy a more threatening space to attack.
Overall, Southampton’s defenders set up to overwhelm any balls into Manchester United attackers. In the below image, we see Jannik Vestergaard closely track the run of Marcus Rashford as a ball is played out wide to Romelu Lukaku. Despite creating a wide gap between himself and Maya Yoshida, Vestergaard recognizes the threat Rashford possesses running into space and ensures he doesn’t lose him.
Manchester United finding space
Manchester United won the game by eventually occupying the space between Southampton’s defensive backline and midfield-trio. As previously mentioned, Southampton’s defensive setup included a block-of-five and a midfield block-of-three. In the first half of the game, Manchester United failed to take advantage of the space between Southampton’s defence.
In the following scenario, we see Romelu Lukaku disrupt Southampton’s defence by finding the space between the lines. As he darts into the space to receive a pass from Paul Pogba, Maya Yoshida sets up to cover him.
As Lukaku receives the pass, he lays the ball off the Andreas Pereira who also finds the space between the lines. Because of Lukaku’s run, Maya Yoshida steps out of his five-man defence, leaving open space between Jannik Vestergaard and Jan Bednarek.
By pulling Yoshida out of position, it allows plenty of space for Rashford to explode into open space. Rashford makes the run into space, however, Pereira’s pass fails to meet its mark.
Manchester United’s second goal came from a similar scenario. Luke Shaw plays a ball into Andreas Pereira who finds himself in space. Once again, Maya Yoshida steps to meet the pass.
Andreas Pereira manages to beat Yoshida and find Romelu Lukaku who is running into space. Lukaku cuts back into the space freed up from Yoshida’s step and strikes the ball into the bottom corner. By committing himself to press Pereira, Yoshida again opens up space between Jannik Vestergaard and Jan Bednarek.
The first Manchester United goal also came from disrupting the space between Southampton’s lines. On the counter-attack, Pereira finds space between Southampton’s back-five and midfield-three. With Ryan Bertrand recovering, the remaining back four hold their position, failing to pressure Andreas Pereira.
This allows Pereira time to take a touch and fire the ball past Angus Gunn. Pereira had apparently worked on shots from this exact spot during the week, probably in anticipation of finding himself with space and time between Southampton’s lines.
Despite managing to disrupt Manchester United’s attackers by overwhelming their forwards, Southampton didn’t do a good enough job dealing with the space between their midfield and defence. Andreas Pereira played a pivotal role in occupying this space, allowing himself to link up with Romelu Lukaku to pull the Southampton defenders out of position.
While they didn’t make it easy for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Manchester United, Southampton failed to come away from Old Trafford with a point. With the team battling against relegation from the Premier League, Ralph Hasenhuttl will be disappointed with the game’s result. Manchester United, on the other hand, will feel relieved to be finally sitting in a Champions League spot after Arsenal drew with Tottenham that same day. With nine games each left to play this season, these two teams have everything still to play for.
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