Manchester United close out 2017 when Southampton visit Old Trafford on Saturday. After dropping points in back-to-back draws with Leicester City and Burnley, United aim to finish the calendar year off with a much-needed win. Standing in their way is struggling Southampton, winless in seven and bracing for a relegation battle.
After twenty Premier League matches, Jose Mourinho’s squad remains second in the table, albeit only a single point above Chelsea. Considering that the club found itself mired in sixth place for much of last season, 2017/18 has brought obvious improvement — but the year looks to be ending on a sour note.
This poor December form coincides with an incredibly hectic fixture list. Saturday’s match versus the Saints will be United’s ninth of the month, leaving a squad full of tired legs and bruised egos. The schedule settles down in the new year, but United can ill afford another disappointing result in the meantime.
The trouble starts in defense, which has fallen well short of its best in recent weeks. After conceding twice to a toothless Burnley outfit, Mourinho pointed out the obvious: “What we are having now is lots of really very bad goals against us.”
And, unfortunately, the manager possesses few healthy options to freshen up that area of his team. Barring a surprise recovery by Antonio Valencia, Matteo Darmian, or Chris Smalling, United will likely be forced to field a makeshift backline of Ashley Young, Phil Jones, Victor Lindelof, and Luke Shaw. This injury crisis explains why Jose Mourinho has gone public this week with pleas for increased January spending. New defensive recruits are desperately needed.
Marcos Rojo struggled mightily on Boxing Day, forcing Mourinho to haul him off at halftime — and only escaped a one-match suspension for yellow card accumulation because the limit increases after the season’s halfway point. Amazingly, Rojo’s five bookings have come in only 294 minutes of Premier League action!
It’s not all bad news, though, as Anthony Martial returned to training this week. A slight knee injury kept the Frenchman out of the squad on Boxing Day, but he now looks well on the road to recovery. Marcus Rashford may still be in line for his second straight start, but even having Martial available as an impact substitute would be a big boost.
Another bright spot has been the continued emergence of Jesse Lingard. The homegrown midfielder has enjoyed a prolific December — scoring five goals and assisting on one — making him an easy choice for the starting eleven. Mourinho already appreciated Lingard’s work ethic and tactical awareness, and must be thrilled at his new-found attacking prowess. A squad player may be blossoming into a first-team regular right before our eyes.
Although an air of discontent lingers over Old Trafford at the moment, it pales in comparison to the mess at Southampton. After four consecutive top ten Premier League finishes, adding a fifth looks quite unlikely. The club sits in fourteenth place, but only three points above the relegation line. That can’t be what Southampton’s board had in mind when parting ways with manager Claude Puel over the summer.
Puel, who guided the Saints to an eighth place finish, was jettisoned due to his overly defensive approach. But his replacement, Mauricio Pellegrino, has struggled to get results and now finds himself on the verge of the sack. A loss to Manchester United on Saturday could spell the end of his short reign at St. Mary’s.
But the club’s problems run far deeper than the manager. For years, the Saints have sold their best players to Premier League rivals and that finally looks to be catching up to them. That continued this week with the announcement of Virgil Van Dijk’s £75 million move to Liverpool. The transfer will be finalized when the January window opens, ending a saga that has stretched on for months. While his talent will be difficult to replace, Southampton must feel some relief that it’s finally over.
It won’t make the beleaguered Pellegrino’s job any easier, though. Van Dijk has not played in the last three matches, including that 5-2 Boxing Day battering at the hands of Tottenham Hotspur, and will surely sit out Saturday as well. His absence leaves an already leaky defense — with 30 goals allowed already this season — all the weaker without its best defender.
At the other end of the pitch, top scorer Charlie Austin will also miss the trip to Old Trafford as he continues serving a suspension.
Manchester United could not ask for a better chance to break out of this slump and end 2017 with a win. The Saints have allowed 11 goals in the last four matches and will now be without their two best players on Saturday. Keep the pressure piled on Mauricio Pellegrino with a resounding victory and head into the new year on a high note.