In a topsy turvy afternoon of football, Manchester United and Southampton played out a 1-1 draw at St. Mary’s.
It’s a cliche in football that the sport can often be “a game of two halves” but with Manchester United it’s more like a game of 20 minute bursts. The Red Devils are a team loaded with quality but cannot sustain attacking quality for an entire half, or even half of a half.
Against Southampton they survived an initial wave of pressing ferocity to dominate the opening period of the game. They looked effortlessly better than their hosts and were creating chances and half-chances with ease. It looked only a matter of time until they scored.
And then they did, in their own net.
To be fair, it was a nice Southampton attack that saw a series of quick passes on the edge of the United area (it all began with what may have been a foul on Bruno Fernandes, but the Saints played to the whistle while United stood around looking like they’d just stumbled out of a nightclub at 4am.
The ball was zipping around and then Che Adams let a shot rip that instantly deflected off Fred’s leg that the Brazilian had lazily stuck out. The deflection sent it spinning goalward where David de Gea was slow to react and the ball went in.
Saints had a brief spell of dominance where United looked shellshocked before The Red Devils recovered to have another run at the end of the half, but they definitely looked short of sharpness as the teams went off at half-time.
United came flying out at the start of the season half and for 20 minutes were all over Saints. Once again the tide had turned their way and the commentators remarked that they couldn’t forsee anything beyond a Red Devils victory.
The movement was sharp, the passing was bright. Paul Pogba in particular was taking over the game and, along with Bruno Fernandes, conjured a wonderful chance 10 minutes into the half that Mason Greenwood bundled home.
Southampton were rocking, and then Jadon Sancho came onto the pitch! United were creeping towards a winner and then everything just sort of dissipated into nothingness? As they did in the first-half, as they always seemed to do, United ran out of steam.
Saints roared back with a brief run of their own (where Adam Armstrong really ought to have won it with a great chance) before the game just sort of limped to a 1-1 finish that didn’t really suit either side who were in need of a win for their various agendas.
Paul Pogba’s game by numbers:
100% take-on success (5/5)
9 duels won
8 ball recoveries
7 final third entries
3 fouls won
1 chance created
His fifth assist of the season. ?️ pic.twitter.com/u12oQrxFSD
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) August 22, 2021
The question is: why can’t Manchester United keep it up? Why can they only play in 20 minute bursts? The answer is mundane and obvious: their midfield is subpar. Fred and Nemanja Matic started today and offered very little in terms of progressive passing, even when United were in full flow it was mostly Pogba and Fernandes making magic.
Fred had a pass completion rate of of 75% and Matic managed 77.1%. And while pass completion isn’t be the be all and end all, a side with United’s ambitions needs at least one of their two midfielders to be able to retain possession simply. To recycle the ball simply. To keep things ticking over so that the attackers can focus on accelerating the play and breaking the opponent down.
If all you have is players who can sprint, then eventually they’re going to run out of steam and you’re going to lose control of the game. The way Southampton maneuvered the ball around the United midfield (which got even worse once Scott McTominay came on) was absolutely embarrassing for the Red Devils and a boon to Saints. Ralph Hasenhuttl’s men played well in patches today but they absolutely should not have been able to; and if United were a proper footballing team they wouldn’t have been able to.
Manchester United have an attack and defence that can win the Premier League title. There is no doubt about that. The issue is that Manchester United’s midfield is maybe worth a top 8 finish, if that? The Red Devils are so wonky that they dare not even field Paul Pogba in what is his natural position because they need to deploy two men to do the job of one, and the two men still can’t do it!
There’s a week left of the transfer window, and if United have ambitions to lift silverware this season then they must go back into the market and sign a proper defensive midfielder. A ball-winner who can recycle the ball quickly and efficiently and enable the attacking superstars at Old Trafford to do their job and win United big games. Without that key man, any attempts at a title challenge will end in impotent fury, just like the 1-1 draw at St. Mary’s.