What a difference a summer makes. Two games into José Mourinho’s tenure as Manchester United manager and the narrative surrounding England’s most successful club has significantly changed. Victories over Leicester City and Bournemouth, allied to the new manager and fresh faces in the dressing room, have brought confidence coursing back. The sentiment on the terraces has done a 180 – far from the despondency of the last few years, fans now believe that United is not only back, but bound for success. Friday night under Old Trafford’s lights is just one more step towards the inevitable.
Relaxed. It was the dominant adjective describing Louis van Gaal’s performance in the Dutchman’s meet-the-press gathering on Friday. The Dutchman, whose propensity to last in the Manchester United job has been questioned more than once in the past two months, has cut an irritable figure of late. Little wonder – the veteran manager has built a career on surety of opinion, if nothing else, and doubts raised by pundits, supporters and the fourth estate do not sit easily with Van Gaal’s increasingly challenged worldview. Yet, victories over Swansea City, Sheffield United and Liverpool have added to Van Gaal’s confidence, and a renewed sense of momentum since the turn of the year. Read More
There is one light amid the gloom: Luke Shaw is young and, although the events that led to the teenager’s broken leg on Tuesday night were far from innocent, it is probable that the left-back will return to the game without career-changing impediment. Shaw’s left leg snapped in two places, from the wildest of challenges, the teenager returned to Manchester on Friday following an operation in an Eindhoven hospital last week. It is the bitterest of ironies that the former Southampton player will miss United’s return to his old club on Sunday.
Shaw’s injury was caused, in large part, because of the force and lack of control demonstrated by his opponent. Reckless, dangerous, call it what you will, but Héctor Moreno’s lunging, two-footed, tackle was exactly the type that prompted referee’s union chief Mike Riley issue new Premier League guidance on reckless challenges in 2013. Odd, then, that rent-a-quote former referee Howard Webb sought to defend Nicola Rizzoli’s inaction over the incident on Tuesday; so too did Roy Keane.
The injury cast a long shadow over what proved to be a disastrous night for United on the club’s return to the Champions League proper, with PSV Eindhoven coming from a goal down to win 2-1 in the Philips Stadion. It was United’s second defeat in three games, although the impact of Shaw’s injury on the Reds’ performance in Eindhoven should not be lightly dismissed.
Still, Shaw’s bad break could have a galvanising effect on the team’s performance this weekend, says Louis van Gaal, with the manager boosted by Shaw’s post-injury resilience. Van Gaal called the player’s response to injury “strong” after a successful operation to fix two broken bones. The player now faces months of painful rehabilitation.
“There was a question in Eindhoven about the mental influence of such an injury and I said that I cannot prove that,” said the Dutchman on Friday. “You cannot see into the heads of the players. I have now read in some papers that some players said it had an influence. But maybe it will have a positive influence in the dressing room. When you see us playing and the spirit that we have, I don’t have any doubt.”
The incentive to win should also be strong with Manchester City losing at home on Saturday. Victory at Southampton will take Van Gaal’s side into second place, just two points behind the club’s cross-town neighbours. Not too shabby for a team supposedly in perpetual crisis.
Still, counting the points is a dangerous game with this United side, not least because that pair of defeats have both come on the road, where the Reds have secured wins at just Aston Villa and Club Brugge this season. Indeed, United has just six league victories away from Old Trafford’s comforts during Van Gaal’s reign as the club’s manager. Not good enough, some might say, for a team led by one of Europe’s most respected coaches.
Further criticism has come for United’s style of play under the 64-year-old Van Gaal. The cautious, often plodding, style may not be Van Gaal’s much-vaunted “philosophy” but it is the dominant approach, with an ailing Wayne Rooney supported by a cast of less-than-effervescent attackers.
And yet, at times last Tuesday, United’s attacking performance was the most vigorous of the campaign, with 19-year-old Anthony Martial demonstrating outstanding natural pace and a rare maturity for one so inexperienced. It is not a gross exaggeration to claim that Martial’s was the most dynamic performance by a United striker in the past 18 months. It is an early call, but Martial could well be the real deal.
It may well be with some regret that Martial is likely to drop to the bench against Southampton, with Rooney fit again following a minor calf strain picked up on international duty. The Scouser has not scored a Premier League goal since April, although he bagged three against Brugge in a Champions League qualifier and a brace of penalties for England earlier this month.
Van Gaal claims that Rooney’s long streak without a domestic goal is not concerning, although the striker’s subdued mobility, poor first touch and general lack of dynamism should be. In addition to Rooney’s lack of Premier League goals, he has no assists and just three shots on target all season, although he can score “a range of goals, like Mata, Memphis, Martial, Fellaini,” according to his manager.
Rooney needs one goal to equal Denis Law as joint-third top goalscorer in the club’s history with 171. “You can count all the goals he’s made. In my memory Rooney has scored a lot,” added Van Gaal.
Meanwhile, Ronald Koeman’s side has made something of a recovery, with four points from the past two games, after a difficult start to the campaign. The Saints have managed just two wins in the last 11 Premier League matches and failed to score in four of the last six.
Although Shaw is absent, former Southampton player Morgan Schneiderlin will make the trip south, albeit he is not guaranteed a start at St. Mary’s. Schneiderlin played seven seasons at Southampton – in League One, the Championship and the Premier League – but first requested a transfer away from the south coast in 2014 following Tottenham Hotspur’s interest. The Frenchman stayed for just one more campaign before joining United in a £25 million deal this summer.
“I hope the reaction to him is a positive one,” said Koemann. “He did everything for the club, he had a great time in Southampton, he was ready for the next step. We had a very good relationship after the difficult summer that we had at the club, his reaction was fantastic, he had a big part in a big season last year and it’s best for him and for the player, that’s the important thing.”
Team news and line-ups
Shaw is unlikely to feature for United again this season, with the most optimistic prognosis being a return in mid-to-late May 2016. Brian Oviedo, Aaron Ramsey and Eduardo – each of whom also suffered similar double breaks in recent years – sat out between 218 and 296 days of football. The youngster’s replacement is likely to be Marcos Rojo, who came on for the Englishman in Eindhoven. Rojo joined Chris Smalling in central defence, with Daley Blind moving to left-back.
“Shaw is the line-up player and I have already said that it is very difficult to replace him, certainly when he is in such good shape. But we have good replacements in Blind, Rojo and in Ashley Young,” said Van Gaal on Friday.
Rooney will come back into the side, with Martial likely to drop to the bench, while James Wilson could also feature as a substitute. The youngster travelled to Holland last week, although did not make the match day squad, but has not yet been loaned out with United’s striking resources so thin this season. Meanwhile, Van Gaal will choose between Michael Carrick and Schneiderlin to partner Bastian Schweinsteiger in central midfield.
Koeman will restore forward Sadio Mane to the Southampton line-up, although he is without Ryan Bertrand, Jordy Clasie, Fraser Forster and Florin Gardos and Gaston Ramirez.
Southampton subs from: Davis, Yoshida, Caulker, Martina, Romeu, Reed, Juanmi, Long, Rodriguez
United subs from: Romero, McNair, Carrick, Pereira, Fellaini, Valencia, Young, Wilson, Martial
Referee: Mark Clattenburg
Assistants: S Beck, J Collin
Fourth Official: K Friend
Southampton 1-1 United
£1 bet club
Memphis Depay to score first @ 15/2
Match graphic by @cole007
Home at last. Manchester United’s road-trip through the festive programme at Aston Villa, Stoke City, Tottenham Hotspur and Yeovil Town has stretched the Reds’ unbeaten run to 11 games, but, some might say, with little uptick in performances. Louis van Gaal’s outfit struggled at Villa and Stoke, ran out of steam in north London and took more than an hour to break down League One’s bottom-placed club. Plus ça change in a season where the Reds have been imperious at home and largely impotent on the road.
Sunday afternoon’s fixture with Southampton is set to be another test of United’s commanding home record, which has brought 25 from a possible 30 points this season; a record second only to leaders Chelsea. Ronaldo Koeman’s side remains in contention for European qualification next season, having defied critics – and, perhaps, supporters – who feared regression after the Saints sold over £100 million worth of talent in the summer. Indeed, the south-coast outfit is also recovering strongly from a mid-season wobble that included defeat to United at St Mary’s in December.
United’s 2-1 victory over the Saints was, although atypical in a campaign that has brought just three away wins, symptomatic of a pattern ingrained on the road this season. Southampton dominated, while United’s dysfunctional back-three struggled for coherence, and the Reds found the transition from defence to attack at speed almost impossible. Yet, despite the home side’s 15 shots to United’s three, Van Gaal’s outfit emerged with the points. The pattern is different at home where the “dominance” United’s veteran coach has sought all season is found more easily – in possession, chances created and victories.
So to Sunday, where the Van Gaal’s side is seeking to build new momentum after suffering – if that’s the right word – three draws in the past four Premier League fixtures. Yet, the Reds face the south coast side with an almost fully-fit squad. Van Gaal reported a clean bill of health on Friday, with only winger-turned-wingback Ashley Young on the sidelines. The former Aston Villa player is expected to be out for another six weeks.
Van Gaal has the option to recall dynamic midfielder Ángel di Maria for the Saints’ visit after the Argentinian impressed in a 30 minute cameo at Yeovil, scoring United’s second goal on the break. Meanwhile, Ander Herrera is also ready after appearing as a substitute in victory over the Somerset club. The 25-year-old has not always been first choice this season, but offers the kind of midfield control that the Reds may require against an impressive Southampton midfield.
Elsewhere, Marcos Rojo and Daley Blind have returned to full training but may only be fit enough for a place on the bench.
“I’m very happy because we have only one player injured. Can you believe it? Only one. Ashley Young,” said Van Gaal on Friday.
“Blind has trained a full week. Ángel di María has played only 20 minutes. I have said I have only one injured player, but I don’t have 100% match-fit players. I have to select the best team and also I have to watch the qualities of Southampton, how I can reduce that quality by my lineup but also by our game plan.
“Rafael da Silva was operated on, and maybe we don’t take any risk with him, but Shaw can also play. Fellaini also trained with us this week.”
There will be no debut, however, for goalkeeping recruit Victor Valdés. The former Barcelona stopper signed on an 18-month deal this week to fuel growing speculation that David de Gea’s time at the club is coming to an end next summer.
Van Gaal insists that Valdés has been retained as his compatriot’s deputy; an odd choice, perhaps, by a player who has appeared at the very highest level since breaking into the Barcelona team under Van Gaal in 2002.
“Nobody is happy to be No2 and he has to have ambition to beat David de Gea, but it shall be very hard for him,” said the Dutchman. “My ambition is that I have the best players who can co-operate with each other to form the best team in the world.”
More than 20 trophies later the five-times Zamora winner says it is a “dream” to be working under his former mentor once again.
“I can already see this is a very special club,” said Valdés. “I worked with Louis van Gaal during my time at Barcelona and to have the opportunity to work with him here at Manchester United is a dream come true.”
Meanwhile, Koeman’s side arrives at Old Trafford having comfortably beaten Arsenal in the Saints’ last Premier League outing. And with the exception of Africa Cup of Nations-bound Sadio Mané, injured Jack Cork and Maya Yoshida, who is at the Asia Cup, Koeman boasts a complete squad for the journey north.
It is a squad that now includes new loanee Eljero Elia, the Dutch winger who started the 2010 World Cup final against Spain, but has seemingly lost his way in recent years.
“I want people to talk positively about me and not negatively,” said the on loan Werder Bremen winger. “This is a very big chance and I will grab it with both hands and do everything to stay at Southampton at the end of the season. I cannot wait to play for Southampton under Ronald Koeman’.”
The 27-year-old could be thrown straight into Southampton’s team in place of Mané, with in-form Dušan Tadić moving into a more central attacking role. Indeed, Elia’s pace could prove useful against a United defence that has not always looked comfortable this season – whether in a five or a four man system.
Speculation is growing that Koeman is being considered for the Barcelona manager’s job, after Luis Enrique’s difficult start to the season. Koeman rubbish media reports this week, but they are testament to the 51-year-old former Barça player’s impact at Southampton this season.
Koeman insists his side is ready to face United after a disappointing draw with Ipswich Town in the FA Cup last week
“The team is looking good, I hope more fresh than they were in the last match against Ipswich Town. We have another tough week in front of us but a nice one because on Sunday we play Manchester United. It’s a great game, a nice stadium and it’s always a pleasure to play there.”
“We know the qualities that they have. You see, little by little, they are growing up. They have more confidence in the team and they have good individual players. They punished us in the first game with those qualities, but as a team we are as strong as Manchester United.”
Still, United enjoys a strong record against Southampton, having won six of the last eight matches between the sides. In fact Southampton haven’t beaten United at Old Trafford since a 2-0 victory 27 years ago this month.
Not that Van Gaal will be counting on victory. Just a much improved performance away from the constraints seemingly felt on the road – and with a fit squad as back-up.
United (3-4-1-2): de Gea; Jones, Smalling, Evans; Valencia, Carrick, Rooney, Shaw; Mata; Van Persie, Falcao
Southampton (4-2-3-1): Forster; Alderweireld, Fonte, Gardos, Bertrand; Schneiderlin, Wanyama; Ward-Prowse, Tadić, Elia; Pellè
United: Valdes, Lindegaard, McNair, Rojo, Blackett, Anderson, Di Maria, Pereira, Blind, Fellaini, Januzaj, Herrera, Wilson
Southampton: Davis, Yoshida, Isgrove, Reed, McCarthy, Targett, Davis, Long
United 115 – Draw 60 – Southampton 30
Referee: Phil Dowd
Assistants: M Mullarkey, D Bryan
Fourth Official: M Oliver
United 3-2 Southampton
£1 bet club
Over 4.5 goals @ 11/2
Running total: £(-)10
It is an uncommon narrative this season, but this is a Manchester United side very much on the up. Just shy of half way through the campaign, United’s recent good form – fours wins in four – will elevate Louis van Gaal’s side to third in the Premier League should the Reds complete a fifth at Southampton on Monday night. The Saints offer no easy victory, of course, with Ronaldo Koeman having enjoyed a fine start to his reign at St Mary’s, but this, perhaps, is the death of United no longer.
The Dutchman’s side is yet to have truly established consistency, let alone a ‘philosophy’, in the season’s opening 14 matches, but momentum counts – and much has been gained in victories over Crystal Palace, Arsenal, Hull City and Stoke City in the past month.
Talk of United lavishing yet more millions on the transfer window, once a favourite supporters refrain, now appears shortsighted with the Reds enjoying the best set of results under Van Gaal. Indeed, the Dutchman bristled at suggestions he is set to build a new galáctico regime at Old Trafford with another £100 million plus spree in the coming months, calling tabloid gossip “disgusting and disrespectful” to the squad he already enjoys.
Still, United’s recent improvement, after the worst opening 10-game spell since 1986, counts for little unless momentum is maintained through a busy Christmas and new year period. It is a scenario of which Van Gaal is acutely aware.
“I am happy with where we are. We are doing better, but where we are now doesn’t count,” said the 62-year-old on Friday.
“It is where we are at the end of the season that matters. We have had a lot of injuries and had to make a lot of changes but the important thing for me is that the players want to follow the philosophy. That is why, despite the many changes, we have been able to continue.”
Van Gaal will be grateful too that a lengthy injury list is finally beginning to subside, although he will be without star performer Angel di Maria at St Mary’s. In addition to the Argentinian winger Luke Shaw, Daley Blind and Rafael da Silva remain on the sidelines for the trip to the south coast.
“It’s not a bad injury, but I am not a doctor, but I think he shall recover very quickly,” said Van Gaal of Di Maria.
“Evans is coming back. He is fit to play. Jones is coming back but not fit to play. He needs training sessions and maybe also matches in the second team. But he is coming back. He is fit to train. That is also very good. We are seeing already light in the tunnel.”
Despite Evans’ recovery Van Gaal is likely to retain centre-back pairing Chris Smalling and Marcos Rojo, with emergency full-backs Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia also likely to continue. Wayne Rooney’s recovery from a minor knee injury means the Englishman will partner Robin van Persie in attack, with Radamel Falcao once again on the bench. In midfield United’s manager could deploy a diamond including Michael Carrick, Ander Herrera and Marouanne Fellaini. Juan Mata’s star-turn in victory over Stoke last weekend seems unlikely to have gone unnoticed.
Meanwhile, Koeman faces injury problems of his own, with half-a-dozen key players set to miss Monday night’s game. Midfielder Jack Cork has been ruled out for more than a month with an ankle injury while defender Toby Alderweireld has a hamstring problem. Morgan Schneiderlin, James Ward-Prowse and Jay Rodriguez all miss the game, although winger Dusan Tadic is fit to play and could partner in-form striker Graziano Pellè in attack.
Koeman has bucked the consensus by driving Southampton into the top four this season despite losing a clutch of players over the summer. Shaw, Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren, Calum Chambers and Rickie Lambert departed for somewhere in the region of £100 million after a fine 2013/14 campaign under Mauricio Pochettino. Yet, Koeman’s arrival, allied to an extensive squad overhaul, has not led to the Saints expected downfall this season.
Still, the 51-year-old former Van Gaal protegé enjoyed a favourable fixture list in the opening weeks of the campaign and recent defeats to Manchester City and Arsenal may put Southampton’s status in some context. Few imagine the Saints will qualify for the Champions League next season despite picking up 26 points to date.
“Southampton have more points than Liverpool,” said Van Gaal. “Their sequence of results has been good but I never doubted that Ronald Koeman would be able to make a success of the club. He is a very good coach and even if Southampton lost a lot of players before the start of the season I knew he would still do a good job.”
Not that Van Gaal has ever doubted his former assistant’s ability despite a decade-old breakdown in the pair’s relationship. Van Gaal acted as Director of Football to manager Koeman at Ajax before the elder man departed from Ajax in aggravated circumstances.
“I will never have dinner with Ronald Koeman again,” said Van Gaal in the aftermath. “He engineered my departure.”
Nor will the pair enjoy a post-match drink. “I don’t know where managers find the time,” claimed Van Gaal. Yet, after the obligatory opening handshake the result of English football’s first ever head-to-head between two Dutch managers will set the narrative for both in the coming weeks. Should United claim a fifth win on the bounce Van Gaal will enjoy credibility much restored. Koeman, by contrast, will face the first real pressure of his tenure.
Then again Koeman has rewritten many storylines already this season. Van Gaal is just beginning to do the same.
United (4-1-3-2): de Gea; Valencia, Smalling, Rojo, Young; Carrick; Herrera, Fellaini, Mata; Van Persie, Rooney
Southampton (4-4-1-1): Forster; Clyne, Fonte, Yoshida, Bertrand; Long, Wanyama, S Davis, Mane; Tadic; Pelle
United: Lindegaard, Blackett, Evans, Anderson, Pereira, Fletcher, Januzaj, Falcao, Wilson
Southampton: K Davis, Cropper, Gardos, Targett, Reed, Hesketh, Isgrove, Mayuka
Southampton 23 – Draw 48 – United 94
Referee: Kevin Friend
Assistants: S Ledger, A Garratt
Fourth Official: R East
Southampton 1-1 United
£1 bet club
Robin van Persie to score first @ 6/1
Running total: £(-)13
It is almost the end of an era. Ryan Giggs’ short spell as Manchester United manager ends on Sunday with the Reds travelling to Southampton for the last game of a disastrous season. One to forget perhaps, save for the interim manager who first won a political battle with David Moyes, and then took charge of the team for the final four games. Victory at St Mary’s could even bring European football next season – a bright end to a campaign that has been United’s worst for a quarter century.
The inquest will begin in earnest Sunday evening, although it will also end rapidly. Moyes’ dismissal in April ended the Scot’s 10 month spell in charge; when Louis van Gaal is announced as United’s first non British or Irish manager next week United will move on permanently – to a third manager in almost as many weeks.
It has been a short period of uncertainty while the club negotiated with van Gaal over the Dutchman’s terms and – seemingly – for Giggs’ future. The Welshman is now likely to stay at the club as part of van Gaal’s staff maintaining a three decade long association with United. Whether the 40-year-old plays beyond Sunday remains in doubt – an outcome dependant on just how minded van Gaal is to retain the midfielder in his squad.
Yet, for the moment Giggs has one last game to manage; perhaps one final chance to pull a United shirt before retirement.
“I loved it the other night,” he said. “I loved coming on and I still enjoy training, even though I have not done much of it over the last couple of weeks. A lot of things [will be considered] like if the new manager wants me! If I want to put my body through another year of eating the right things, the discipline, another pre-season and do I want to go out still enjoying it and not go on a year too long?
“These are all things I have got to consider. It is probably easier if you have had injury problems. I have seen players who just can’t go on and they are not training, they are just going out for games. I have never really had those problems. I have got to weigh up a lot of things.”
Giggs is now likely to form part of van Gaal’s backroom team along with Patrick Kluivert, Frans Hoek, and Rene Wormhoudt, although Netherlands national team assistant Danny Blind is staying with the Oranje after the World Cup. Giggs harboured hopes of taking the top job himself, tet the hugely ambitious Welshman insists that he holds no enmity having been overlooked by United’s owners. After all, the failed experiment with Moyes left little appetite for risk this summer.
“It’s not a disappointment,” said Giggs. “I have got plenty of time and this experience has definitely helped me. I’ve loved it. With all of the things going on in my head, whether to carry on playing or not, there are a lot of things to consider for me so I am not disappointed at all.”
Giggs enjoys a strong squad for his final match as interim manager, although neither Wayne Rooney nor Phil Jones will be risked ahead of this summer’s World Cup. Jones came off after 22 minutes of United’s victory over Hull City on Tuesday night, but the shoulder injury is unlikely to keep him out of England’s squad heading to Brazil later this month. Rooney will join the England training camp after the season’s conclusion.
However, defender Rafael da Silva could feature after overcoming injury. The Brazilian has missed more matches through injury than any other United player this season, enhancing an already poor reputation for an lengthy injury record. Indeed, it has been a disappointing season for the player who had progressed strongly in 2012/13, but made no impression on Phil Scolari’s World Cup thinking after dropping out of the Seleção post the 2012 Olympic Games.
“I’ve been injured for about six weeks now so it was a bad injury,” said the 23-year-old. “To be honest, I first got injured in the Liverpool game but I just kept going and played in another three games before the Villa match. It then got a bit worse.”
Meanwhile, it is captain Nemanja Vidic’s last game for the club, while Patrice Evra and Rio Ferdinand are also out of contract in June. With van Gaal sure to bring in a clutch of acquisitions this summer half-a-dozen players could wear the United shirt for the final time on Sunday. Giggs is set to pair Vidic and Ferdinand for the final time.
Sunday could also be Southampton manager Mauricio Pochettino’s last match in charge. The Argentine has led Southampton to an outstanding eighth place finish in the Premier League, while up to four of his squad will be in Roy Hodgson’s World Cup squad this summer. However, the former Espanyol manager is yet to commit his future to the Saints with Tottenham Hotspur reportedly interested and rival clubs seeking to extract a number of club’s key players this summer.
“It’s up to the board to discuss with me the new project that will be in place for next season,” said Pochettino.
“It’s not up to me to decide when those talks will happen. This Sunday when the season ends against Manchester United a project of five years will have come to an end. The club overall needs to explain to me what this new project is going to consist of and how it is going to start next season.”
Pochettino is without forward Jay Rodriguez, who is out for six months with an anterior cruciate knee ligament injury, while Gaston Ramirez has an ankle problem. Kelvin Davis and Maya Yoshida also miss out.
All eyes will be on Giggs though – the United legend-turned-interim manager who may well bring the curtains down on a fabulous career at Saint Mary’s. If so, it has been an inauspicious campaign on which to end, but perhaps the start of a second calling in coaching that could bring yet more glory.
Three points on the south coast, coupled with a Spurs defeat at home to Aston Villa, will bring Europa League football next season. Hardly the stuff of legend, nor the priority for many supporters, but a continental stage nonetheless. United’s bean counters expect nothing less; for Giggs it might represent a small victory in what has been an enjoyable spell in charge of the club.
Southampton v Manchester United – Premier League, St Mary’s, 3pm 11 May 2014
Southampton (4-3-3): Boruc; Clyne, Lovren, Fonte, Shaw; Wanyama, Davis, Schneiderlin; Cork, Lambert, Lallana
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Vidić, Evra; Valencia, Fletcher, Carrick, Kagawa; Mata; van Persie
Southampton: Ward-Prowse, Targett, Do Prado, Chambers, Gazzaniga, Hooiveld, Reed, Gallagher
United: Lindegaard, Büttner, Evans, Smalling, Cleverley, Fellaini, Januzaj, Kagawa, Welbeck, Nani, Wilson, Lawrence, Young, Hernández
Head to Head
Southampton 25 Draw 29 United 59
Referee: Mike Dean
Assistants: S Bennett, D Eaton
Fourth Official: R Madley
Join the discussion here!
Manchester City’s eye raising draw with Queens Park Rangers on Tuesday has changed the Premier League title race dynamic once again in a season of frequent surprises. Within sight of a two point gap at kick off on Tuesday, Roberto Mancini’s side will slip to seven points off the lead should Manchester United beat Southampton at Old Trafford on Wednesday night.
Victory at Old Trafford promises a significant carrot for Ferguson’s team, and with City facing Liverpool at Eastlands next Sunday there will be more than a few United supporters counting on a even greater gap by Saturday evening.
Indeed, City’s slip against relegation fodder QPR has opened up a huge opportunity for Sir Alex Ferguson’s men against the Saints. While the south coast side certainly gave United a genuine test earlier this season – the fixture in which Robin van Persie scored his first goal for the club – Southampton remains in deep trouble, just three points off the relegation zone.
The Saints arrive, if not in disarray, then in a state of considerable flux. Much loved manager Nigel Adkins was sacked on 18 January despite a record of just two defeats in the club’s previous 12 matches. His replacement, the Argentine Mauricio Pochettino, comes with a coaching pedigree at Espanyol in La Liga, together with 20 caps for his national team.
Yet, Saints’ fans, angry at the manner of Adkins’ dismissal, have not been slow to voice disapproval. It is a sentiment that Ferguson, always supportive of the managers’ union – Rafael Benitez aside – has been quick to echo ahead of Soton’s trip north.
“I spoke to [Adkins] the day before he was sacked,” said Sir Alex on Tuesday.
“He phoned me about his situation there. I mean I can’t understand these things. I think their form had picked up. Was it two defeats in 12 games? That’s not bad for a team at the bottom of the league.
“Southampton’s fans have got a way of demonstrating and there were a few banners up at the Everton game. It’s nice in terms of recognising the contribution Adkins made. He brought them up into the division and it’s not an easy job.
“The game prior to losing his job, they were 2-0 down to Chelsea but they came back and got a draw. Arsenal had the same situation and got to 2-1 but couldn’t quite get the second goal. The task of getting back at Chelsea on their home ground when you’re 2-0 down is pretty impressive.”
Southampton’s impressive display in the goalless draw with Everton a fortnight ago said much about the team’s fighting spirit in recent weeks even if too few goals scored, allied to far too many conceded, left Adkins side teetering on the brink before the Englishman’s dismissal.
Meanwhile, United host new coach Pochettino with the home side in rude health. Just Ashley Young and Jonny Evans will be absent through injury. The packed squad leaves Ferguson with plenty of selection dilemmas, especially with van Persie, Rio Ferdinand and Anotonio Valencia due to come back into the side after the trio sat out United’s comfortable FA Cup victory last Saturday.
Ferguson may opt to bring Tom Cleverley or Paul Scholes back into midfield, although Anderson impressed in United’s total dominance of Fulham in the cup. Meanwhile, van Persie and Wayne Rooney should be reunited in attack, with Nani, Valencia and Shinji Kagawa competing for, perhaps, two wide spots.
Whatever the team selection United can look forward to a fixture period that includes matches against Southamton, Fulham and Everton in the league prior to the European fixture at Santiago Bernabéu. There is every reason for supporters to believe that United can secure nine points prior to the Euro game.
Meanwhile, the visitors will make a late call on the fitness of Adam Lallana, while striker Guilhermo do Prado and defender Jose Fonte will miss the clash with knee injuries.
The travelling supporters are not expected to make any significant protest against the club’s management at Old Trafford. Although the voices of disapproval were heard at St. Mary’s after Pochettino’s appointment, widespread protest has yet to materialise.
Certainly, the new Southampton manager has played a cute public relations game in the past 10 days, although results will define his relationship with the travelling support above all else. After all, Adkins achieved two promotions with the club, while the Argentine is yet to achieve anything of note as a coach.
The manner of appointment leaves Pochettino’s bank of credit in debt from the off; United hope to make another sizeable withdrawal with victory on Wednesday night.
“I don’t know a lot about him to be honest but I will have a chat with my brother [Martin] as he’s been scouting in Spain,” said Ferguson of the Premier League’s newest manager.
“It won’t matter in this particular game as he’s just at the club but they had a fantastic response against Everton. They should have won as they were superb and could have been five-up in the first half. Tim Howard had a fantastic game, they hit the woodwork and Rickie Lambert missed a couple of chances. They played really well against Everton who are at the top of their game and playing really well.”
It should be a home-banker whatever Ferguson’s tact, although the Reds’ inability to shut the opposition out this season has encouraged visiting sides to attack at Old Trafford. Some have profited from the bravery, although Fulham’s performance last weekend was anything but.
Still, Ferguson is keen for complaceny to be eradicated as United seek to drive home a significant advantage.
“We’re not taking anything for granted,” said Sir Alex. “We’ve got Southampton on Wednesday, then we go to Fulham and then it’s Everton at home. These are big games, massive games.
“Teams will drop points. Not just us but Manchester City will drop points, absolutely, it’s a certainty. We’ll probably drop two or three ourselves but the important thing is accepting the challenge that every game is just as difficult as the rest.”
Manchester United v Southampon – Premier League, Old Trafford – 30 January 2013 8pm
United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Cleverley, Carrick; Valencia, Rooney, Nani; van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Jones, Smalling, Buttner, Scholes, Giggs, Anderson, Kagawa, Welbeck, Hernandez
Southampton (4-5-1): Boruc; Clyne, Yoshida, Hooiveld, Shaw; Schneiderlin, Ramirez, Cork, Guly, Puncheon; Lambert. Subs from: K Davis, Fox, Richardson, S Davis, Chaplow, De Ridder, Rodriguez
Referee: Lee Mason
Assistants: R West, S Bennett
Fourth official: P Tierney
Head to Head
Last 10: United 7, Fulham 2, Draw 1
Overall: United 46, Fulham 14, Draw 18
- Robin van Persie’s goal scoring this season has allowed Wayne Rooney to drop deeper, a move supported by the Scouser’s stats which show he makes more passes per minute in the opposition half than any other Premier League striker;
- Tom Cleverley provided the assist for van Persie’s goal in United’s fixture against Tottenham Hotspur – just his second of the season, despite having completed 386 passes in the opposition half at a rate of one every 3 minutes 6 seconds;
- United defender Phil Jones made five blocks during the game against Spurs, the joint second highest number of the season;
- Southampton’s new manager Pochettino has inherited the hardest working team in the Premier League – Southampton’s players have covered more ground than any other team with a total of 1474 miles;
- Morgan Schneiderlin takes the individual trophy for most distance run with a total of 148.2 miles so far this season, one of only five players to have topped 140 miles;
- Schneiderlin has also completed 414 passes in the opposition half this season, more than any other Saints player;
- Rickie Lambert is Southampton’s top ranked player in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index having scored ten goals in the Premier League at a rate of one every 191 minutes 40 seconds, and one every 5.1 shots;
- Lambert also has five assists to his name, meaning he has contributed to exactly half of Southampton’s 30 Premier League goals this season.
Picture the scene: a massacre of x-rated horror. Certainly not one for the kids; not on a Sunday tea time at least. But this was not some far-flung war-torn land ignored by the west, but Manchester United’s defensive shape, seemingly disregarded by Sir Alex Ferguson. It was brutally exposed by newly promoted Southampton at St Mary’s on Sunday, and oh-so-nearly cost United a second defeat of the campaign.
After all, there have been plenty warnings. Everton bullied United’s back four at Goodison on the opening day of the season, while Fulham should have scored more than an Old Trafford double last month. That is to say nothing of the four the Toffees scored at the back end of last season in a tragi-comic end to the campaign.
Yet, at St Mary’s the old frailties recurred, with both full-backs caught out of position too often, while Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidić looked far from the tried-and-trust partnership of old.
True, injuries have disrupted United’s preparations and consistency. Patrice Evra aside, each of Ferguson’s first team defenders has spent time in the physio suite over the past year. Ferguson’s side started the campaign missing four central defenders in Jonny Evans, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Ferdinand. Few squads could cope with that level of disruption, let alone record two victories the opening three matches of the campaign.
Yet, it’s an analysis that misses the underlying point, and downplays the structural problems in Ferguson’s side. Defensive numbers are plentiful at Old Trafford, but after a summer of more generous than usual transfer spend, the question of squad balance still rears its ugly head.
On the south coast the Reds suffered not only for mistakes in defence – Southampton ruthlessly exploited defensive weaknesses at full-back – but a genuine lack of cover through central midfield. Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley, ever neat in possession, were unable to prevent the newly promoted outfit breaking forward in numbers. All too often Ferguson’s side aided Nigel Adkins’ side by committing up to seven players forward, while leaving gaping holes in the rear-guard.
In this there is no surprise that captain Vidić offered an honest assessment of United’ defensive performance after conceding twice on Sunday. Yet, with five goals against already this season, it is an admission that only tells half the story of the Reds’ troubles.
“It was a difficult game and we conceded two goals we’re not happy with at all,” Vidić told MUTV.
“We’ve been told before the game what Southampton’s strengths are, what their game is and what they’re trying to achieve. In the end, they did it so it’s disappointing. I have to say, we are not really pleased with the goals we’ve conceded. There was a lack of concentration, I think, for all four goals we lost [in the last two games] but we have to work on it.
“You have to say we’ve had a lot of turbulence in defence with so many changes and people going in and going out. We didn’t have a constant back four and sometimes it causes a problem, but we look forward to the next games. We have over a week to improve our fitness and obviously our form so we are going to be right for the next game in the Premier League.”
Yet, there is also a question of balance. Those jokes about Ferguson perfecting a new formation – the doughnut – ring true. That, somehow, United’s team has the perfect shape, but nothing in the centre. Judging by the Reds’ defensive concentration this season fans might have cause to wonder whether the joke goes far enough, although after Sunday the premise certainly holds.
And with Vidić now fit, Ferdinand restored, and Evans on the way back, Ferguson has more cover in defence than for some time. Jones, now in full training, and Smalling will provide more cover in the weeks ahead. None of the returnees can ensure United’s midfield offers sufficient cover; nor the Reds’ shape enough protection.
One critical, but perhaps realistic assessment, is that United’s 70-year-old manager has gambled, in recruiting Robin van Persie and Shinji Kagawa this summer, that more goals will paper over weaknesses in midfield. Particularly the defensive and physical side of United’s engine room that is too frequently exploited to be ignored.
It’s a bet that is already placing significant faith in van Persie’s ability to maintain the goal-a-game start to his United career. On Sunday the Dutchman’s hat-trick secured a last-gasp victory; van Persie won’t always be able to repeat that trick.
In this it is hard to be critical – United fans want attacking football, played in the very finest traditions of the 134-year-old club. All too often in recent years style has been subservient to substance, while neither flourished last season. The sight of Kagawa flitting in between attack and midfield dictating play, and van Persie ruthlessly finishing chances, is one supporters will surely enjoy this season.
Yet, in moving to a progressive formation, and a more attacking philosophy, there is also some irony. After all captain Vidić began the season by demanding United seeks points in precedent to entertainment.
“Sometimes the main thing is to play for three points, not just to enjoy games,” admitted the giant Serbian in August.
“We want to play great football but we want three points and we want the title. I think this year we understand that. But when you don’t win the title, the next year is the one where you think ‘I have to push more, I have to work harder, I have to do better than last year.’”
Hard work alone will not help Ferguson’s men strike the right balance between flooding forward in search of goals, and keeping the ship water-tight. Defensive shape – and midfield personnel – will have just as significant say in the title race this season.
The real question is whether the returning injured can ameliorate the defensive mistakes of the past month. If not, then much as supporters found after last season’s humiliating defeat to City at Old Trafford, Ferguson is likely to eschew attacking prowess in favour of more defensive stability.
In that there is much to ponder.
The only constant, they say, is change and Southampton’s promotion to the Premier League after seven years in the wilderness is a welcome one for many supporters. Perhaps not for Sir Alex Ferguson though who has not always enjoyed the best of times on the south coast. Not least because two of the 70-year-old manager’s most ignominious defeats during his quarter-century in charge of Manchester United came at Southampton’s hands.
Indeed, Reds will not easily forget the Hampshire side’s 6-3 drubbing of United in 1996, nor the infamous grey kit that ’caused’ the Reds’ downfall six months earlier. Ferguson can be thankful that United’s players will at least be able to see each other at St Mary’s on Sunday; the team’s nifty new white kit will be on show for the first time this season.
Kits and colours aside, United head to St Mary’s seeking momentum after last weekend’s home victory over Fulham at Old Trafford. With the Saints having lost two Premier League games on the bounce, Ferguson’s side should make the lengthy trip south with confidence.
However, injuries continue to bite into the Scot’s defence, although Northern Irishman Jonny Evans should make his first start of the season after returning from ankle surgery this summer. Evans rehabilitation will allow Michael Carrick to join Tom Cleverley in midfield.
Elsewhere Wayne Rooney and Rio Ferdinand will be unavailable until after the international break, while Ashley Young has a minor knock. Chris Smalling and Phil Jones remain on the sidelines.
“Centre-back is our main concern at the moment,” admitted Ferguson, who is managing United in the league for the 1,000th time.
“Jonny Evans played on Wednesday [for the reserves] and came through fine. He’s the strongest option we’ve got. Phil Jones has done some training but isn’t ready yet. Ferdinand’s in the same boat. At least we have one centre-back available, which is an improvement. It allows us to put Michael Carrick back in midfield.
“Wayne [Rooney’s] out for four weeks. It’s nothing serious on the actual gash – it’s a bad one but it was treated carefully very quickly. We don’t expect any complications from it. I think he’ll be back in four weeks. The fact it’s a gash and not a muscle or joint injury means he can do a lot of work in the gymnasium. We’re not too bad with that.”
In Rooney’s absence Robin van Persie should start for the second week in succession, while Ferguson is likely to move Carrick into midfield.
Elsewhere Nani could come back into the United side after missing out on Ferguson’s squad entirely for the match against Fulham last week. Young’s injury ensures the Reds are short in wide areas.
“It was nice of the FA to let everyone know that Ashley Young is injured,” added Ferguson.
“There is no point giving them any information now. We have a game on Sunday and why should we alert our opponents who is fit and who is not fit. It won’t happen again. He’s out, he got a knee injury last week, although it’s not serious. Obviously he will be ready in a couple of weeks’ time.”
Meanwhile, midfielder Darren Fletcher is unlikely to make Ferguson’s squad despite appearing in two reserve fixtures in recent weeks. The Scottish international has not played for United’s first team since November 2011 after taking time out for a persistent bowel condition.
Fletcher, who appeared disturbingly gaunt in recent months, has gained strength according to his manager and is in contention to make United’s Premier and Champions League squad lists this season.
“The first thing to mention is he has put weight back on now, he’s back to his normal weight from two to three years ago,” added Ferguson
“He’s training well every day. He played the other night and did really well but I don’t know where he’s at, to be honest. With the condition he has, and has to deal with, it’s wait and see. If he keeps doing as well as he’s doing then he will come into contention because he’s a fantastic player.”
Meanwhile, Southampton may hand a début to Zambia forward Emmanuel Mayuka, although Japanese defender Maya Yoshida and £12 million striker Gastón Ramírez cannot play for the Saints until after the international break.
Whatever the hosts’ line-up few expect anything bar a United win. Despite those headline-grabbing losses at Southampton, United has won on three of the club’s four Premier League trips to St Mary’s, including a 2-1 win in May 2005 that relegated Southampton to the Championship. In between, United has emerged victorious in two FA Cup ties on the south coast.
And who would deny Ferguson victory his 1,000 league match in charge of the Reds? In the intervening 25 years the Scot has emerged victorious 598 times, with 233 drawn and 168 defeats. Sunday is unlikely to be the 169th.
Southampton v Manchester United – Premier League, St Mary’s – Sunday 2 September 2012, 4pm
Southampton (4-1-4-1): K Davis; Clyne, Hooiveld, Fonte, Fox; Schneiderlin; do Prado, S Davis, Lallana, Rodriguez; Mayuka. Subs from: Gazzaniga, Richardson, Shaw, Seaborne, Ward-Prowse, Puncheon, Sharp, Lambert, Lee, De Ridder
United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Rafael, Evans, Vidic, Evra; Cleverley, Carrick; Valencia, Kagawa, Nani; Van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Wooton, Büttner, Powell, Giggs, Anderson, Scholes, ;Welbeck, Macheda, Hernández
Referee: M Dean
Assistants: J Collin, J Brooks
Fourth Official: M Halsey
Last 10: ;Southampton 1, United 9, draw 0
Overall: Southampton 24, United 52, draw 26
- Southampton lost 2-0 to Wigan Athletic last weekend, although ;Morgan Schneiderlin ;impressed with an ;incredible 7.29 miles covered in the game;
- Schneiderlin covered ;7.31 miles against Manchester City on the opening weekend of the Premier League, meaning the Frenchman holds first and second position in the EA SPORTS Performance Index for distance covered in a single game;
- Captain Adam Lallana covered ;the second highest amount of ground after Schneiderlin in both games and registered the fastest top speed of any Southampton player with 19.05 mph;
- Meanwhile, Ferguson’s side is making a habit of nervy victories this season after scraping to a 3-2 win over Fulham last weekend;
- Robin van Persie scored on his full début for United and covered 5.99 miles, second only to Tom Cleverley who covered an impressive 6.4 miles for the Reds;
- Cleverley also completed 46 passes in the Fulham half, the most of any player in the last round of games, while the midfielder has completed ;90 passes in his opponent’s half so far this season;
- Adam Lallana is Southampton’s top passer, but he has completed just over half Cleverley’s number with 50 passes in his opponent’s half.
Twice in a week Manchester United has come from behind to win. Twice Sir Alex Ferguson’s side has displayed a level of ineptitude that threatened defeat. Indeed, much like United’s tie with Blackpool at Bloomfield Road on Tuesday, Ferguson’s outfit was second best for much of today’s FA Cup Fourth round tie with Southampton.
Yet, with a will-to-win that is second to none and two second-half goals from Michael Owen and Javier Hernández, United qualified for the fifth round for the eight time in the past nine years.
Ferguson can take little heart from his team’s performance though despite the win, with several fringe first team players covering themselves in very little glory. Southampton manager Nigel Adkins, by contrast, will rue the energy that ebbed away from his side in the last half an hour of an absorbing cup tie.
“The first half we struggled all the way through it,” said United assistant manager Mike Phelan.
“The played extremely well and the system they used was working to plan. Our system wasn’t. We changed it a little bit at half time and then we tried to make amends in the second half by introducing a couple of new players.
“We’ve played players who are not getting as many games as we’d like to give them and we tinkered a little bit with the formation, which is unusual for us. The difference was the formation change – it changed the game.”
Ferguson though contributed to United’s first-half malaise, selecting for the second time in the week, a side devoid of balance and width. With Owen in an unfamiliar role behind strikers Gabriel Obertan and Hernández, and Darron Gibson making another strong case for permanent exclusion from the squad, United’s play was sloppy, casual and shapeless for much of the opening hour.
Southampton played with greater confidence from the start, but with rumoured United transfer target Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain struggling to impose on United’s unfamiliar back-four and début goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard, the home side was restricted to long-range free kicks.
But United rarely threatened save for Owen’s miscued cross that hit corner of post and bar, and another speculative effort from the former Liverpool striker that flew wide.
Indeed, the home side always looked the most threatening and Richard Chaplow took full advantage of Jonny Evans’ poor clearance and Chris Smalling’s hesitancy to lash past Lindegaard on the stroke of half-time. The stunning finish reward for Southampton’s bright play.
Little changed in the opening minutes of the second period, as United struggled to find any rhythm and the hosts sought a second. The Saints left-back Dan Harding almost doubled the advantage, toe-poking a shot wide after a stunning run through United’s defence.
It was enough for Ferguson, who hauled off the ineffective Gibson and Anderson for Ryan Giggs and Nani, finally offering the width United had lacked for an hour. Those supporters of a crueller disposition might argue the former pair saw an hour more than necessary.
And the changes paid almost immediate dividends as United injected both pace and width into the game. First Nani crossed for Owen to poke wide from close range before Obertan delivered for the striker’s equaliser. There was a touch of fortune to United’s goal though, with the Frenchman’s crossing hitting Danny Seaborne and sitting up for Owen to head home on 65 minutes.
Ten minutes later and United sealed the win as Giggs, influential once again, intercepted Ryan Dickson’s pass and played in Hernández to strike home his second goal in a week.
“Obviously they played well, they’re flying high in their division, and always in FA Cups – no matter what standard you’re playing against – it’s always really tough for sort of 45 minutes or an hour,” said goalscorer Owen, who scored his tenth goal for the club.
“Inevitably, you know, the better quality – and it’s not fitness, obviously they’ve got to run more to keep up with us in many ways and then they tire – and it’s often the way that the better teams come good in the last half hour.”
That United was the better team in name only for much of the matters little now; Ferguson can at least look forward to the Reds’ inclusion in Sunday’s fifth round draw ahead of Aston Villa’s visit to Old Trafford on Tuesday night.
Yet the Scot must also be concerned with his squad’s quality after Gibson, Anderson, Obertan, Smalling and Evans all disappointed. On this evidence alone Ferguson must surely wonder whether Gibson or Obertan will ever make it at the club.
No such worries about Hernández though, who continues to impress during his debut season at Old Trafford.
“He’s only had one chance and he’s scored – one chance, one goal is a tremendous ratio,” Ferguson told MUTV.
“He has great feet in and around the box and gets his shots away quickly with hardly any backlift. His workrate is fantastic and he’s always on the move.
“Sometimes we make it difficult for ourselves, but in fairness I maybe meddled with the system by trying a diamond in the middle of the pitch.
“Manchester United are used to playing with width and I think that [the system] was a problem for us. It wasn’t working at all.”
Pretty or effective it was not but a cup victory nonetheless.
Southampton – 442 – Bialkowski; Harding, Fonte, Butterfield, Seaborne; Schneiderlin, Guly (N’Guessan 79), Oxlade-Chamberlain, Barnard (Dickson 73); Chaplow (Gobern 84), Lambert.
United – 433 – Lindegaard; Fabio Da Silva (Brown 46), Smalling, Evans, O’Shea; Anderson (Nani 58), Scholes, Gibson (Giggs 58); Owen, Hernandez, Obertan.
Attendance – 28,792
Man of the Match – Ryan Giggs
Possession: Southampton 49% – 51% United
Attempts: 12 – 11
On Target: 6 – 6
Corners: 5 – 3
Fouls: 13 – 6