Three key questions for Mauricio Pellegrino ahead of Man United clash

Southampton fans, fresh from another sale of one of their top players, are entitled to ask: for all the money they’ve received from Liverpool over the years, what do they have to show for the investment.

There are numerous answers.

For a club in their position, in League One just a few short years ago, Saints are flying fairly high with a League Cup final last season, top half Premier League finishes, and even a Europa League campaign in the recent past.

And yet, this is a club who are just a few points off the relegation places and have a trip to Manchester United up next, where they could fall even lower.

In a way, that shouldn’t be surprising given how bunched up the lower half of the Premier League was last season and most likely will be again this year. But it’s also clear that building upon those successes should have been the remit of Mauricio Pellegrino, appointed in the summer as successor to Claude Puel who took Saints to a cup final, even if the football at St Mary’s was sometimes stolid and pedestrian. After half a season, not much has changed, and there’s certainly been no improvement – the attack has gotten no better and the defence has started leaking goals.

Those are the big questions for Pellegrino to answer, the broad-ranging brushstrokes of what needs to be answered in order to turn the club around. But in the short term, there are questions ahead of a daunting trip to Old Trafford to face a club that should be preparing some sort of backlash…

How to harness the sale of Virgil van Dijk?

This sounds like another one of those broad questions, but it might well be important in the short term, too.

One of the reasons Southampton’s defence has been creaky this season has been the fact that Van Dijk has been absent: sometimes physically, always psychologically. This week, his state of limbo has been lifted, and so too has his club’s, meaning everyone at the club can now focus solely on pulling together for the club with no one on board who simply doesn’t care.

That doesn’t totally sound like it should matter to professional footballers who should be able to perform anyway, but sometimes one bad apple is all it takes. It’s up to Pellegrino and the board to use the money they’ve received wisely, but in the short term, it’s also up to the manager to harness the power of the sale and channel it into a good performance of a team of footballers who all want to play for the cause.

How to fashion a functioning attack?

Southampton have scored just 20 goals in their 20 games this season. It’s not the worst in the league by any means, but it’s comfortably bottom half. And whilst Burnley have shown that this isn’t an impediment to success – they’ve scored fewer goals and still sit seventh and on the coattails of the top six – the Clarets have also conceded just over half the amount that Southampton have so far. In other words, the attack mightn’t be a problem if the defence were keeping them out at the other end.

This weekend, though, Saints will take on Manchester United, a team with the third-best defensive record in the league. Although Jose Mourinho’s side have been conceded more goals than usual of late – over the last three games in all competitions, they’ve conceded two goals in each – Saints’ often toothless attack will certainly find it tough to break down unless Pellegrino can find a way of fashioning an attack which can be effective on the break at Old Trafford.

Who to choose up front?

That leads itself to perhaps the biggest question that Pellegrino will have to face in terms of personnel: who starts up front.

This season, goals have been hard to come by for the whole side, but top scorer Charlie Austin will miss the trip to Old Trafford through a combination of injury and suspension, leaving Pellegrino to choose, most likely, between Shane Long, who hasn’t scored this season, and Manolo Gabbiadini, who’s scored just three times.

That seems like it should be an easy decision in some ways – some is better than none – but with no guarantee that the Italian, who almost brought his club to League Cup glory against the Red Devils in February, can find his own scoring boots, the better option might well be to start Long who will at least provide some pace.

Saints will no doubt be living on the break, and although keeping a clean sheet will probably be the biggest priority in an attempt to come away with a point, the ability to keep United honest and hit them at the other end is also important. That might well mean a left-field selection of a false nine or even a front two of Nathan Redmond and Sofiane Boufal could be a clever selection – though neither pacey winger has covered themselves in glory of late in a Saints shirt either.

There have been 534 goals scored in the 199 Premier League matches played so far this season. That, dear friends, is an average of 2.68 per game. This is one of the reasons we have selected a bumper +1.5 goals coupon with excellent LeoVegas odds for this Saturday. Check out our reasoning—plus an absolute winner of an EFL outright win fourfold—in the latest Accy Show!