Manchester United show glimpses of the Sir Alex Ferguson years against Southampton 

It was Jose Mourinho’s first Premier League game at Old Trafford as manager of Manchester United. His intentions were made clear as he named Paul Pogba in his starting lineup.. United set up in a 4-2-3-1 formation with Blind and Bailly at the heart of defense;Fellaini and Pogba sitting in front of the back 4 with Pogba given the license to make runs from deep while Fellaini had to shield the backline;wide midfielders Mata and Martial;Rooney in the number 10 role just behind in-form striker Zlatan Ibrahimović. Southampton set up in a 4-4-2 diamond formation with Fonte and Dijk as the CBs;two attacking fullbacks in Cedric and Targett;Romeo just at the base of the diamond midfield with Højberg and Davis in front of him and Tadic as the number 10 with Long and Redmond up front.

Man United in possession

 Contrary to popular belief, Jose Mourinho has retained most aspects of Louis van Gaal’s system. In possession,United tried to overload the left side of the pitch to maximise the ball playing attributes of Daley Blind. The Dutchman is one of the best defenders right now in breaking opposition lines with his passes. Southampton tried to block Blind’s passing options with their cover shadows. Moreover the Southampton block had to shift over to the left side to prevent the likes of Pogba,Martial,Rooney and Ibrahimović from scoring through local combinations on that side. Because of this shifting,there was acres of space for Valencia on the underloaded right side of the pitch. Man United often looked to exploit this underloaded side by finding right back Antonio Valencia with diagonal passes. Upon receiving,Valencia was seen to choose either one of two options.. Firstly,he could use his pace to drive into the space in front of him and deliver crosses to Zlatan and the others who would attack the cross.. Secondly,if Valencia was closed down early,he opted to pick out either Juan Mata or Wayne Rooney one of whom will make a diagonal run to the flank. On receiving,they had an array of options to choose from. One of those options was to put crosses into the box for Zlatan.. Zlatan because of his strength wins more headers than is expected from any other striker. Thus,it was not much of a surprise to see United resorting to their old school tactics of putting crosses into the box. Eventually,it was one Wayne Rooney cross which Zlatan thumped home to give the hosts the lead.

Man United resolute defensive structure

Manchester United lined up in a deep 4-4-1-1 block for majority of the game. They were more than happy to let Southampton have the ball. It was interesting to see the wingers lying deep in their half to help the fullbacks. Juan Mata and Anthony Martial worked their socks off throughout the game to block the supply of crosses into the box. It was thus no surprise to see both of them being subbed off in the later stages of the game.Because of their deep positions,United were almost always well equipped defensively as there was a 2 versus 1 situation on the flanks in their favour. 

However this tactic suffers from some drawbacks.. Because of the deep and wide positions of the wingers,the halfspaces become available to the opposition.. These halfspaces are strategically one of the most important spaces on the football field as they are connected to the wing as well as the centre.. As a result,different avenues of attack become available via the halfspaces. Southampton unfortunately failed to utilise these halfspaces well. There was a lack of ‘dropping movements’ from Southampton’s forward line. This reduced the number of vertical passing options for Saints’ deep lying playmakers and the CBs. Also,it led to a sterile U shaped passing pattern for the Saints without any real penetration. The few chances they had during the game were mainly as a result of individual errors from United which led to quick transitions. Long should have scored on one of those occasions but hit it straight at De Gea.

Glimpses of oldschool United

United showed glimpses of the Sir Alex Ferguson years throughout the game. In Sir Alex Ferguson years, it was common to see United defend ruthlessly and hurt teams with swift counter attacks. Many such counter attacks were seen. Immediately after winning possession,United looked to release Martial as quickly as possible. The French forward could have easily had two goals had it not been for some brilliant defending by reported Man United target Jose Fonte. The arrival of Mkhitaryan for Mata provided another outlet for Manchester United to launch counter attacks. The Armenian,who had a stellar campaign last season for German club BvB is another player who excels in attacking transitions. His quick feet and direct play in the final third posed problems for the Saints as the latter were chasing the game late on.

Perhaps the most important factor for last night’s win was the influence of Paul Pogba. Manchester United paid big money for his services and he already showed signs of what he is capable of. He is one of the most complete midfielders today. He can dribble,pass,shoot,score from distance. United have been lacking such dynamism in midfield for some years now which explains why Jose Mourinho was so keen on getting him despite the high price Juventus were demanding for him. His dynamism have a sense of direction to United’s attacks after they won the ball in their own half. 


 With 6 points from two games, the Old Trafford faithful are starting to feel optimistic about their title credentials this season. However,apart from the big 5-6 teams in the league right now,the main challenges will come in the form of teams like West Bromwich Albion,Stoke City and those teams which defend deep. It is against such teams where Jose may well have to borrow Louis van Gaal’s system and finetune it to grind out 3 points from such fixtures. Overall the defensive setup is looking stronger after every game. With proper tactical discipline,this team may well be on the glory road sooner than anyone ever imagined.

Note: Sorry not to include any diagrams. I currently do not have any app to help me make tactical diagrams.. Regret the inconvenience caused.


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