Jose Mourinho took his struggling Manchester United side to the south coast on Saturday, to face perhaps the only manager under more pressure than he is at the moment, Mark Hughes. Southampton have been dreadful this season, providing no evidence to suggest that Hughes’ permanent appointment in the summer has helped the club to move forward. United, on the other hand, seem to have left behind all the positive momentum generated from the comeback wins over Newcastle, Bournemouth and Juventus, and look unlikely to make the top four this season. The football has been dire as well, and Mourinho definitely needed both a strong performance and the result to match from this game in order to inject a modicum of positivity back into the club.
Mark Hughes stuck to a three-man backline, which meant that youngster Yann Valery played at right wing-back, with Cedric Soares switching over to the left. Michael Obafemi was also trusted to start up front alongside Nathan Redmond, giving the Saints a pacy two-man strikeforce.
New shape, same old problems for United
While the change in shape was somewhat forced upon Mourinho due to his centre-backs being injured en masse, one would have expected that it would provide a little more protection to David de Gea than in recent weeks. Those hopes were dashed within the first 20 minutes, as Southampton raced into a two-goal lead.
The same issues that have been plaguing United for weeks, and indeed that we have been highlighting here on this website during that time, surfaced once again. Players were caught out of position, there was a complete lack of urgency which allowed Southampton time on the ball, and there were massive gaps between the lines. The build-up to the first Southampton goal itself had shades of all three of these issues manifest itself.
This was something which continued throughout the game, and despite United ending the game with 60% possession, they were outshot by the Saints. Southampton had 16 shots, with six of them on target, compared to United’s 11 and five. United’s midfield was too passive, while Matic and McTominay both looked ill-suited to playing at centre-back. This all came together to allow Southampton one of their more productive evenings in recent weeks.
Rashford the only bright spark
It was a similar story in attack – United huffed and puffed a lot, but to no avail. Romelu Lukaku did end his goalscoring drought, but that was the only positive from a nondescript performance otherwise. The Belgian was sluggish and lethargic outside the box, slowing down attacking moves and struggling with his control of the ball. The lack of creativity in midfield was painfully obvious, as Paul Pogba had another off day, while Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini are hardly renowned for their nous on the ball.
United’s buildup play was slow, as usual, and one passage of possession around the 10th minute was indicative. The Red Devils had the ball for at least a minute, but they failed to progress out of their own half, constantly playing passes between the centre-backs and midfielders, as nobody made a run off the ball or offered an attacking option. There was a familiar lack of dynamism and intensity in attack, with only Marcus Rashford providing any drive or impetus.
The youngster created both of United’s goals and was the brightest player on the pitch until his withdrawal through injury. However, even he made a couple of basic mistakes, such as the instance provided below, which clearly demonstrates the lack of cohesion between United’s attackers at the moment.
Once again, United found themselves trailing before there was any semblance of intensity from the side. While they managed to draw level in the first half itself, it never looked like they would get the winner. Familiar tactical issues remain unsolved, and the players look like they are putting in just the bare minimum needed, nothing more. Once again, it looks increasingly like Mourinho is edging closer to the brink of losing his job. While the Portuguese manager cannot be blamed for all of United’s ills, his tactics and philosophy are definitely strangling his side. With Arsenal up next, it may get worse before it gets better for United fans.
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