Manchester United will face Southampton on Saturday evening’s late kick-off as the Premier League’s final weekend of the year takes on a traditional feel after the strange times of the festive period so far have left most of us losing track of the days.
Those strange kick-off times have also led to some strange performances from Manchester United, however. With no win in three games in all competitions, and only one clean sheet in their last nine, Jose Mourinho’s side come into this weekend’s meeting with Southampton needing something to lift their spirits ahead of a trip to Everton just two days later.
A comprehensive victory over Southampton would do the trick, and round off a mixed bag of a year on a high note, and promising more to come in the new year.
In order to do that, though, they’ll have to overcome a Saints side who have been below par of late, but perhaps buoyed by the fact that they’ve managed to snare £75m for a player who doesn’t really want to be at the club anymore, they can use the sale of Virgil van Dijk as a springboard to build a solid second half of the season upon.
Here’s where the game will be won and lost.
Ok, so it won’t be a total throwback, but with the possibility of Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic taking on Mario Lemina and Oriol Romeu in the middle of the Old Trafford pitch, we can only hope for an old-fashioned midfield battle.
It won’t turn out that way for numerous reasons. One will be squad rotation, and all four players started their respective sides’ last game; indeed only Lemina didn’t play for the full 90 minutes – that might necessitate some rotation. And perhaps the most important reason is that this game will likely see United pummel a deep-seated Southampton side who are keen to make sure that they don’t repeat the defensive mistakes that saw them concede five goals on Boxing Day in their last away trip in the Premier League.
But this will still be a battle to watch carefully, and one which may well decide the game.
If United can get Pogba in enough space, his ability to create and make things happen could be key to United’s ability to break down the Saints’ defence. Meanwhile, it will be up to Lemina and Romeu to stop them. Going the other way, too, Mauricio Pellegrino’s midfielders will need to link up with the pace of Saints’ wingers to hit United on the counter-attack if they’re to have a chance of springing a second upset at Old Trafford in two games. United will need Matic to be at his disruptive best to deal with two of the Premier League’s dangerous yet sometimes underrated box-to-box midfielders.
And even allowing for rotation, this will still be a key factor in the game. Whoever United choose to play in the centre of midfield will be needed to guard against counter-attacks, especially as United’s defence has looked vulnerable of late, keeping just one clean sheet in their last nine. At the other end, they’ll need to play a big role there, too.
For Southampton, protecting the back line is only one job for the midfielders – defending for the whole game won’t do for Pellegrino, who will need his midfielders to be effective in springing counters at the other end.
Those counters will be perhaps the key to this game. United’s recent defensive record is one thing, but the fact that their best players who aren’t currently out have played the full 90 minutes so often over the last month or so is also of a concern. That might make Mourinho’s midfield less effective at stopping the counter-attacks, and fatigue can mean attackers make the wrong choices, allowing the opposition to break much more easily.
This works both ways, though. The Christmas period isn’t just tiring to the big teams, and this will be Southampton’s second away trip in four days. If tiredness or mental fatigue stops them from being able to launch their breaks, and make the right decisions once they do, this could turn into a very long afternoon for Pellegrino’s side, who are becoming all-too accustomed to such scenarios.
Perhaps having your former club captain sitting on the bench and you have no idea if he’s going to take your place in the heart of the defence isn’t conducive to top quality performances. Maybe that’s one reason why the Van Dijk to Liverpool transfer saga has left Saints somewhat in limbo so far this season. Maybe it even stopped Pellegrino from bringing in proper reinforcements in the summer, simply hoping that the Dutchman would slot back into the heart of the defence without any fuss.
Whatever the case, this could go either of two ways for Southampton. Freed from the limbo the uncertainty around Van Dijk caused, they could be a reinvigorated team excited by the thought of £75m of new recruits in January who actually want to play for the club. Or, on the other hand, they could be further depleted in defence at exactly the worst time.
In recent weeks, Saints have conceded four at home to Leicester – with Van Dijk starting at centre-back – and five away to Tottenham. They’ll be up against a United side who might seem like they’re struggling, but if it weren’t for Manchester City’s thrust at greatness, Mourinho’s side would be well in with a shout of Premier League glory, and are ahead of every other side in the league, after all.
Indeed, United have scored twice in each of their last three Premier League games, despite drawing two of them, and they have only failed to score in two domestic matches all season – once in defeat to Chelsea, and once in a disappointing scoreless draw away to Liverpool. No side in any competition has stopped them from scoring at Old Trafford.
That could make it a tough afternoon for Saints, but the longer they can keep the Red Devils at bay, the more frustrated United could get. And that could leave opportunities on the counter-attack later in the game.
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