The good news is that if Manchester United win the rest of their games they’ll be in the UEFA Champions League next season. That’s the exact same scenario they found themselves in at the end of their match against Aston Villa last Thursday.
The bad news is that for the umpteenth time this season, United failed to take advantage of their rivals ahead of them in the table dropping points to get themselves back into the top four.
That’s an overly simplistic view of things. At the end of matchweek 24, Leicester City were 14 points above United in the table. United have erased that deficit in just 11 games. However, their inability to leap above Chelsea — despite many opportunities to do so — has certainly been frustrating.
With the chance to jump not just into the top four but into third place with a win over Southampton Monday, United looked off the pace right from the start. Naturally the assumption is that fatigue is setting into the squad, but that seems too simple.
This is a team that has been rotated excellently. Almost no outfield player has played 90 minutes in more than two consecutive games, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has utilized the five substitution rule to keep everyone fresh. The games themselves have been played at about 80 percent intensity and all have featured several stretches that look very similar to this.
Early on in the first half, Sheffield United stopped running on defense, content to only play when they had the ball. By the second half they were just trying to conserve energy and see out the game. By the 65th minute, Brighton made a similar decision. Even Aston Villa eventually packed things up, content to just see the game out (all three teams went on to win their next Premier League games... coincidence?).
But not Southampton.
For the first time in Project Restart United came up against an opponent that wasn’t content to play the game at 80 percent intensity. Southampton took the game to United.
From the opening whistle the Red Devils were rattled. They struggled with Southampton’s press and struggled to get settled on the ball. They were a step too slow, a touch too heavy, hitting passes with just a bit too much weight. Right from the start everything just seemed a bit...off.
It started with Victor Lindelöf playing a simple pass to Aaron Wan-Bissaka that was miscontrolled as a defender closed him down.
It continued all game. The passing just wasn’t crisp and the Saints were ready to jump on every ball.
Even the sure-footed Nemanja Matić wasn’t pinpoint with his passes, preventing United from getting out on the break.
It just seemed like every time there was a 50/50 ball Southampton were a step quicker in getting there, including twice on this play.
Even United’s pressing — if you could call it that — was slow, if it was even there. Early on in the match United’s front three moved to press Southampton’s centerbacks.
They barely put any effort into it, though, and ended up like this.
No one is closing down the man on the ball, no one is is cutting off any potential passing angles. How difficult would it be for Southampton to break this “press?”
Very quickly this game started looking like the first leg against Club Brugge, with Anthony Martial coming to the same conclusion he did that night: the only way you’re going to get chances is to create them yourself.
United shouldn’t be rattled by a team pressing. They’ve played against plenty of them this season. Plus pressing opens up spaces that can be exploited on the counter, something United excel at.
In order to exploit the gaps created by pressing teams, you need to stay positionally disciplined. This was easy in the first half of the season when — other than Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial — no one was really given any freedom to move around the pitch. But lately, United have been very fluid. Their players have had much more freedom, most notably Mason Greenwood, and it’s blossomed into a gluttony of goals.
Greenwood needs to learn that in some games positional freedom is good, but in others you need to stay home.
Here’s an example. United are trying to play out the back. Greenwood had tucked inside centrally, leaving no outlet for Wan-Bissaka on the wing. When United get the ball back, Greenwood needs to get wide to give his defenders options, but he doesn’t and United struggle to maintain possession.
At 18, that’s part of his development, but his wandering around made it very easy for Southampton to mark him out of the game. When he did get the ball, they were very quick to ensure they had at least two defenders on him.
For as bad as the final result felt for United, the game itself really wasn’t. When Paul Pogba was subbed out in the 63rd minute, United had 56% possession, the shots were 6 to 5 in favor of United, and the xG was 0.80 to 0.73 — with 0.46 of that coming on Stuart Armstrong’s goal.
It wasn’t great, but United were in control of the match. Systematically United had settled into the game and were actually doing just fine.
Their undoing came from individual errors.
This has been the story for most of the season where one or two errors ruined an entire performance, but on Monday, they were everywhere.
It started with Southampton’s goal, when Pogba clumsily lost possession.
This is really poor from Pogba. It’s also poor from Lindelöf and David De Gea, who should have been shouting at Pogba that a defender was oncoming. Communication, or lack thereof, would be a big issue all day.
United would settle in pretty quickly after that, though. They did that with some quick one touch passing to break the press, leading to a great goal that was ruled out for offside.
The offside goal was a turning point. United were on the attack and what Pogba gave away to Southampton he made sure to take back with this excellent ball into the box to set up United’s first goal.
Make note of Rashford’s left-footed finish. It’ll be important later.
United’s second goal comes when Mason Greenwood does the right thing. As United are trying to play out from the back, he breaks sharply to the touchline as an outlet. That break also opens up the middle for Paul Pogba.
And when you’re pushing up on the press like Southampton was here, and you give that kind of space to Paul Pogba in the middle of the field...it doesn’t take long for you to get hurt.
But like I said, United were undone by individual errors. They were everywhere. Each error itself wasn’t necessarily costly, but players just didn’t seem to be completely themselves.
Like Aaron Wan-Bissaka taking a bad touch and slipping, taking away a potential chance for United.
Or Marcus Rashford failing to control this pass.
Or Scott McTominay and Wan-Bissaka not communicating on this long ball, allowing Southampton to bring it down freely.
Even Brandon Williams found time to be careless with the ball, giving it away after a great Matić pass, only to be bailed out by Fred’s defense.
Bruno Fernandes got in on the “giving the ball away” action too.
Over and over again.
This one got a particularly loud reaction from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer which was very audible on the broadcast.
I know. “Bruno gives the ball away because he’s taking risks.” I’m fully aware of that — risk-taking is his job in the team. That’s no excuse for messing up non-risky passes. The above pass certainly isn’t easy but it’s not exactly hard either. Plus Rashford is in acres of space; it doesn’t have to be close to perfect and he still misses by a mile.
Then there’s the decision of when to take a risk. The risk-reward ratio has to be worth it. Take this play for example.
Bruno tries to play this first touch off balance pass out wide to Wan-Bissaka. Or maybe he’s trying to play Martial in, but I hope not because then he really missed his mark. Look at where everyone is when he plays the ball.
To get that ball out wide is not easy at all. And what’s the reward? You get Wan-Bissaka out in space where you still have to play another difficult pass in to create a chance? It’s not worth it at all!
There’s no reason to try this pass. Look at all the space to his left. If he just brings the ball down he can carry it himself. He can run at those defenders — they’ll either back off and give him space, or if they step up on him he can play Rashford in behind him. That’s where Bruno needs to improve: when to take risks and when not to.
Actually I will give my opinion. I like Bruno a lot, made a big difference and his importance is clear to see.... However I don't think accepting the waywardness is a good thing and he should try and eradicate it from his game. He can be better in that sense 'trying things'— where is mbappe?? (@Valnoon13) July 13, 2020
Poor decision making was contagious in the United squad on Monday. Shortly after Martial’s goal another chance fell to him.
With two men on him in the box, Mason Greenwood wisely passes the ball back to Pogba who flicks it over to Martial. Martial is in a dangerous position, but Southampton do a great job getting back to take away a shot on his right foot. Thus, Martial chooses to...blast the ball over the net with his left.
This wasn’t an open shot. There are three Southampton defenders between Martial and the goal, plus it’s on his weaker foot. Most importantly, there’s a really easy layoff to Rashford staring right at him.
Instead, Martial decides to tee off and blast it over the bar.
Rashford wasn’t immune either. In the second half he was given a bit of space from acres away and decided to tee up himself.
Don’t let the fact that it “just missed” fool you. This is a terrible shot (even if it was on target it probably would have been saved).
What are you doing here?
From a free kick, I get it, but in open play?
And the worst part about this was, Rashford and Martial were almost unplayable on the day. Southampton didn’t have an answer for them. On a day where United only managed to get eight shots, they had an xG per shot of 0.19!
That came from Rashford and Martial getting themselves really good opportunities. They just...couldn’t finish.
Case in point:
Now I’m not saying if Rashford uses his left he definitely scores here, but it seems like that fraction of a second that it takes for the ball to roll over onto his right was just enough time for Nathan Redmond to get back and make a spectacular block.
If there was one player who wasn’t faring poorly for United it was Victor Lindelöf. The Swedish defender was having a pretty active game, saving United at the back several times.
But then came the equalizer.
The popular thing to do on this has been to blame Lindelöf for the goal. He’s not faultless here but it’s certainly not his fault alone. De Gea could have done better himself, and I’m still not sure why Rashford, with a man right behind him, doesn’t even try to jump for the header at the near post. He’s probably being pushed down but if Rashford gets off the ground at all, then the physics of the flick would be completely different and the goal is likely prevented. In other words, there’s blame all around.
Including for the manager.
Fred replacing Pogba in the 63rd minute seemed completely fine — Pogba wasn’t having his best game, and Solskjaer may have planned to start Pogba on Thursday. With the exception of Rashford, this was the team that was playing and picking up results in February and March. United’s possession slipped a little bit, but they still created some chances. Over the next 21 minutes the xG was 0.70 to 0.07 in favor of United. United’s possession only dropped from 56% to 55%. They were in control of the game.
That’s when Ole decided to be weird and over-think things. He brought on Dan James to replace the ineffective Mason Greenwood, and took off the clearly fatigued Bruno Fernandes for...Scott McTominay?
If there was a change in shape, or a change in tactics that would be understandable, but there wasn’t. McTominay came on, slotted in right next to Matić and pushed Fred to the number 10 role, a position the Brazilian does not play.
It was a bizarre move. I know saying Andreas Pereira’s name is blasphemous but he is good at the defensive aspects of the number 10 role (he came on to kill off both derby victories). Wouldn’t that make more sense than playing a midfielder out of position, and breaking up your midfield for a pair that statistically doesn’t hold possession as well as the Matić-Fred pair?
Not to mention, why not bring on Odion Ighalo, whose hold up play is a real asset in killing off a game? That’s not to say Martial isn’t great at holding the ball up, but a fresh Ighalo is probably better than a Martial who has 80 minutes on his legs.
Nevertheless, Solskjaer’s substitutions didn’t work. We’re withholding all judgement of what happened after the Brandon Williams injury because that’s just bad luck. United finished the match in a 5-3-2 formation with Fred playing left wing back and a midfield of McTominay, James, and Rashford.
When McTominay and James came on United had 55% possession for the match. By the time Brandon Williams got hurt six minutes later, it was down to 51.68%. From when the two of them came on until Williams got hurt, this was United’s longest string of possession.
McTominay hasn’t been great since the restart, and was disappointing once again. The Scot had just one touch in the 10 minutes he was on the pitch. He promptly gave it away.
McTominay did not have a single defensive action in those 10 minutes. Even Dan James had a pressure in the final third and the defensive third and even had a clearance to boot. A defensive midfielder coming on and having no defensive actions is impressively bad.
If Solskjaer was trying to kill off the match bringing on McTominay — who doesn’t hold possession very well — didn’t make sense. If he was trying to hold on and just defend for the final seven minutes plus stoppage time that wouldn’t be very characteristic of him either.
United just weren’t themselves on Monday — they gave the ball away too easily, in particular. But then again, it was the reverse fixture at Saint Mary’s that saw United give the ball away the most times in a match this season.
Since Ralph Hasenhuttl has taken over at Southampton, United’s four fixtures with the Saint’s have ended 2-2, 3-2, 1-1, and 2-2. Paul Pogba has played some of his worst matches in a United shirt against them. Perhaps Hasenhuttl just has Solskjaer’s number. That happens in football. Solskjaer has had Pep Guardiola and Frank Lampard’s numbers this season. It happens.
At the end of the day though, United still control their own destiny. Win their remaining games and they’re in the Champions League next season. Monday was an opportunity lost, but not an opportunity thrown away.
It’s not all bad.