SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – AUGUST 31: Daniel James of Manchester United in action during the Premier League match between Southampton FC and Manchester United at St Mary’s Stadium on August 31, 2019 in Southampton, United Kingdom. (Photo by Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images)
As the final whistle blew at St. Mary’s many fans were left dismayed at another poor Manchester United result. The failure to beat a 10-man Southampton side means Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has now only won 3 out of his last 16 games, and right or wrong, the pressure is on.
United seemed comfortable in the first half, and Daniel James 3rd goal of the season helped to settle the nerves for the Red Devils away at a lively stadium. Similar to the Wolves game, United initially didn’t look to be phased away from home, remaining calm on the ball, passing out from the back, defending and attacking as a coherent unit.
“Goals change matches” is often an overused saying, but here it proved true. Just like at Molineux, and at Old Trafford, the Red Devils looked more like lost souls as they struggled to settle back into the game, even with Southampton going down to 10 men.
What this showed was the lack of experience and leadership in United’s side. Even with a 34-year-old Ashley Young coming in, United still played with one of the youngest premier league sides over the weekend.
Solskjaer may have done well to rid United of its deadwood in one window, but in this game it was clear to see how much the team still needed improvement. Perhaps Ander Herrera would have provided the tenacity and nous to get Paul Pogba further up the pitch where he’s best suited. Maybe Romelu Lukaku would have scored from one of Daniel James’ crosses at the end. But these players are no longer here, and Solskjaer can’t deal in hypotheticals, he must get something else out of what he has.
Firstly we must analyse what we can from the game, in order to see where maybe Solskjaer can improve his side. Going forward it was clear United were struggling in multiple areas. From a creative standpoint, this was not Paul Pogba’s best game, but we shouldn’t expect it to have been, especially when deployed so deep in a two-man pivot. It wasn’t at all surprising to see Pogba do better on the ball once Nemanja Matic came on, and Pogba was pushed up the pitch.
The World Cup winner delivered his best performances under Solskjaer when he was given more of a free role, and with Fred up to speed after the international break, perhaps we may see the 50 million pound man get more of a chance. Alternatively Matic could come in against more physical route one sides and provide added aerial protection to Lindelof. An outside option, but one many fans could support would be the introduction of James Garner. The 18 year-old has shone in the u23’s this season, being involved in 1.3 goals a game, whilst his side have only conceded 2 goals in 5 games. The defensive midfielder is tenacious and aggressive in the tackle, but also seems to have the nous to run the midfield, whilst possessing an incredible long-range pass, and in this side could help to share the responsibility with Paul Pogba to kickstart United’s attacks.
Further up the pitch, Juan Mata and Andreas Pereira both started brightly, giving United more control on the ball than against Crystal Palace. But as the game went on they were often dispossessed, and had little overall impact on the game. Many fans have been calling out for Angel Gomes, and it’s not hard to see why. The diminutive attacking midfielder impressed greatly on United’s pre season tour, and the night before the Southampton match scored an impressive long-range goal, after beating a couple players, against West Ham’s u23 side. As we often see with Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, smaller attacking players like David Silva, Bernardo Silva, Raheem Sterling, Sergio Aguero, Gabriel Jesus and more, can be useful in breaking down low block compact defences, with intricate one touch play – and in that sense Angel Gomes can be similar. His agility, balance and skill on the ball means he doesn’t need to worry about his physicality when beating opponents, and his vision and weight of pass means he can be a reliable creator in the final third.
Up top, the debate of who should primarily play up front for Manchester United should now be settled. It was evident on Saturday that Rashford was not good with his back to goal, his hold up play was lacking and he doesn’t seem to have the poacher’s instincts to make those “tap in” or “scruffy” goals. Rashford is key to Solskjaer’s system, providing incredible pace on the counter and his ability to get in behind, and maybe yes the perfect man to coach the striker’s ability in the box is Solskjaer, but Saturday’s performance showed just how vital Anthony Martial could be to United this season. The young French forward impressed with his hold up play in all the games he’s been apart of so far this season, controlling the ball with his back to opponents, and often bringing others into play, whilst also scoring a poacher’s goal. In should step Mason Greenwood, the 17 year-old’s outrageous goal record in the academy highlights his natural finishing ability, able to score with either foot, and natural killer instinct in the final third.
All these additions of course make United younger, but maybe we should be patient. Of course this will be a long process, and it’s clear Solskjaer is building for the future, as shown not only by his signings, but by who he has let go too. Olé needs time, but will it be given to him? The board, and more so Ed Woodward, seem to have made a rod for their own back with the appointment of the Norwegian, as it’s highly improbable that the fans would turn to their club legend with disappointment and anger before directing it towards the board. But to the outside world, the pressure is on – rightly or wrongly, managers are judged on results.
Like their previous three games, Manchester United should have had a victory based on xG, expected goals. In fact, United are 1st in the league for xG against, and 4th for xG scored, meaning overall based on performances alone, United should be in 2nd place right now. But as often is the case with data, context has to be provided. It may show the performances are there, but the results are far from it. United have to take their chances more clinically, and manage games better when faced with adversity.
Perhaps a positive can be taken from the fact that top 4 rivals Chelsea and Arsenal also slipped up on the weekend. But some would argue, and rightfully so, that this makes the result even more bitter, as Solskjaer’s men on three occasions could have gained an advantage over their Rivals. What’s more their next opponents are Leicester City, who have already shown this season their ambitions of potentially breaking into the so called “Top 6”. Manchester United need to bounce back, and with the games coming thick and fast, perhaps we’ll be able to judge how well this side will fare this season.