Football Features

“Fabulous but flawed” Man Utd slip-up against Southampton, losing ground in Champions League race

By Muhammad Butt

Man Utd 2-2 Southampton: "Fabulous but flawed" United drop crucial points

Published: 22:36, 13 July 2020 | Updated: 9:53, 30 March 2021

In an intense night of football, Manchester United and Southampton played out a 2-2 draw.

Saints started the game on the front-foot and took the lead but United fired back through extreme individual quality, then trying to see the game out they were pegged back at the death by Southampton whose stoppage time equaliser prevented United from going into the top four.

What did we learn?

1. Manchester United are fabulous but flawed

Manchester United are obviously on one hell of a roll at the moment but the game against Southampton made it clear that whilst they may be the Premier League’s in-form side, they are far from near being finished and actually have some glaring weaknesses that can be exposed. This would have been true even if they had won, but Southampton’s equaliser does kind of hammer the point home.

Obviously it takes a fantastically coached side to expose them, and that is where we must praise Ralph Hasenhuttl, but the flaws United have are the kind that Champions League sides will expose. United’s centre-backs are capable of bringing the ball out from the back but both full-backs are achingly poor in possession and can be easily pressed into mistakes, as Southampton did numerous times.

In midfield the persistence of Nemanja Matic means that United will never be fluid enough with the ball to contend against the sharpest pressing sides because it’s too easy to force them into mistakes. It doesn’t help that of their most capable ball-players in the back six; Victor Lindelof is not good enough to play in the side and needs to be replaced, and Paul Pogba is a player prone to overplaying on the ball and not being aware of danger around him. Both of these weaknesses were exposed by Southampton as they squeezed the middle of the pitch, reducing the quality of the supply to United’s fabulous front four.

And even amongst that front four there is a weakness: a lack of depth. When United had to make changes in the second-half, who could they bring on? A rough prospect like Daniel James? The quality of United’s attacking play dropped several levels when Bruno Fernandes was subbed off, and without Pogba on the field too there was just no way for the Red Devils to move the ball efficiently; which given they had struggled to do that with their playmakers on, was a real problem for them.

This is also the final weakness: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The Norwegian coach appears to be a fine man-manager but when it comes to the finer tactical points of the game, or the ability to construct a quality attacking structure, he doesn’t really have what it takes. Letting your players free-wheel it in attack is all well and good when the players deliver, but when they struggle and need his help from the bench he often cannot provide them with anything. Even his subs sapped his side’s energy today and he had no answer for the fantastic set-up employed by Southampton.

It would be ironic if a substitute striker stabbing the ball home at the back-post after a near-post flick from a corner is what costs Ole Gunnar Solskjaer a spot in the Champions League, given how Solskjaer earned his immortal reputation at United. Obviously they still have it in their own hands, but given that The Red Devils have once again passed up the opportunity to take advantage of Chelsea slipping up you have to question their ability to perform under pressure, delivering wins when they absolutely must do?

And that might be their most fatal flaw of all.

2. Hasenhuttl doesn’t miss

For the first 20 minutes of the match at Old Trafford, Southampton were unquestionably the better side. They looked fitter, faster and most importantly far more tactically organised than their hosts. Their pressing, especially on Man Utd‘s entry passes to their slow-witted back six players was superbly timed. The way that Saints identified Pogba’s tendency to dither on the ball and punished it multiple times was also the hallmark of a side that is being perfectly coached.

In the first-half they they were only undone by the superior quality of the United forwards, but they were never out of the game. This match was always a genuine contest and so when Saints did bag their 96th minute equaliser, it felt like a surprise but also it made perfect sense. Hasenhuttl‘s men had never given up and fully deserved their point.

This match was also a case study in just how good Ralph Hasenhuttl is and why Saints have been right to stick with him through all the early-season turmoil. Southampton’s gameplan was spot-on and it’s clear that, with better players, Saints could easily be a top four side in the Premier League because Hasenhuttl is tactically flawless. The man does not miss.

3. V-A-Nah

When Oriol Romeu steamed through on Mason Greenwood, the foul looked ugly in real-time. When VAR had a look, it was clear that Romeu had gone in studs-up into the ankle of the teenage striker. Whether he did it on purpose or not is irrelevant, the fact is that it was a horrific challenge and one that deserved appropriate censure.

Which is why no one could quite understand when only a yellow card was issued. Obviously you don’t want to ruin the balance of games by issuing red cards but you hand out red cards for a reason and serious foul play like Oriol Romeu careening into Mason Greenwood with an ankle-breaker of a tackle is one of them. If VAR isn’t going to adjudicate on those kinds of incidents then what is VAR even for?

4. No Ings? No Problem

Danny Ings did play for Southampton at Old Trafford, but apart from a great bit of pressing in the lead-up to Southampton’s first goal you wouldn’t have guessed it. Ings has been supremely prolific for Saints this season, bagging an incredible 19 goals. But obviously the worry for Saints would be that they rely far too heavily on him and if he doesn’t deliver the goals, Saints will struggle to score.

But they showed at Old Trafford that they don’t need to rely on Danny Ings to score. They bagged a brilliant opener through Stuart Armstrong, came close on other occasions and then did finally equalise through Michael Obafemi. For a side who has so heavily relied on a striker, to get a massive point like this without their striker scoring will give Ralph Hasenhuttl so much confidence for the future.

5. Magical Martial shows his best

Anthony Martial is so often a player that flatters to deceive, and with all the hype surrounding Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford right now, the Frenchman was at risk of becoming a forgotten man. Not so after tonight, when some of his illustrious team-mates weren’t quite at it Martial was spitting hot fire from the first minute.

His pressing set the tempo in attack, he was always on the shoulder of the Saints defenders and causing problems. He set-up United’s equaliser with a stunning bit of hold-up play, a supreme combination of power and control to keep possession before slipping it sideways for Marcus Rashford to score. And then he scored himself, tearing in off the left-flank, weaving by Saints defenders like they weren’t there before blasting the ball into the back of the net. A supreme strike.

For the rest of the game, Martial was at his tyrannical best, showing exactly why he has the potential to be the absolute best player in the Manchester United squad. If he can make that level his usual level, there’s no limit to what he could do.

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