The last time Manchester United faced Southampton at Old Trafford, Adnan Januzaj had one of those days.
So impressive in a wide playmaking role, the talented Belgian was instrumental in Robin van Persie’s opener, and the hosts should have been two or three ahead at halftime. The match ended 1-1, though, with Southampton slowly winning the arm-wrestle in central midfield and scoring a very late equaliser.
Much has changed since then and much has not. Januzaj’s form has fallen on rather harder times in recent months, with the teen, 20 next month, struggling to earn a start. Meanwhile, his club has made significant reinforcements in the transfer market, and Angel Di Maria may well find himself with a starting role this weekend.
Southampton have overhauled most of their starting XI and have produced some remarkable performances this season. Of the two sides, it is United who look most like their old selves. Louis van Gaal’s men are third in the league — a point ahead of Ronald Koeman’s side — and at times are scoring with something like the frequency and the fluency of old.
United should be careful, though. There has been some bullish talk of mounting a title challenge in recent months, which has perhaps led to a neglect of the teams in the chasing pack. Draws at Stoke City and Aston Villa over the festive period may be results that they regret come the end of the season.
They now meet a Southampton team recovering their confidence after four straight league defeats, with three victories and a draw in their last four games. Despite that unpleasant midseason skid, Saints are still the holders of the best defensive record in the league, with 15 goals conceded. Wayne Rooney and co will therefore have to be at their best to break them down.
How can they do so? Well, a notable absence from United’s performance in this fixture last season was any real pressure on the ball. The presence of Ander Herrera from the start should solve that in part, while the return of Michael Carrick should protect the defence far better than Darren Fletcher, who has found the going alarmingly difficult of late.
Despite their recent injury woes, Van Gaal may also be able to use his 3-5-2 formation, given the apparent return of Luke Shaw, Marcos Rojo and Daley Blind to full training. Blind, if fit, is likely to start on the bench, since he offers less pace than either Shaw or Rojo in wide areas.
A key tactical question is whether Van Gaal, given the return of Di Maria, opts for the diamond formation, with Juan Mata supported by the Argentine to his left, Herrera to his right and Carrick at the base of midfield.
If Van Gaal goes down this road — and it is a formation that has produced some of his team’s better performances this season — then he must decide whether to start Van Persie or Falcao alongside the in-form Rooney.
Falcao has been perhaps the most industrious of his teammates in recent weeks and though he seems to be lacking an extra gear of acceleration, he is again re-establishing himself as a consistent goal threat. Van Persie, though, would have to count himself as seriously unfortunate to be omitted, given his two goals in United’s 2-1 win over Southampton earlier this season.
What threats do Southampton offer? Well, one of the main ones will be missing, with Sadio Mane’s departure to join Senegal at the African Nations Cup. Mane had scored three goals in his past three games, including strikes against Arsenal and Chelsea. Dusan Tadic remains, and he has been one of the Premier League’s most reliable providers of goals this season.
Graziano Pelle, after something of a slump in past months, is also looking more like the player who caught so many eyes during Southampton’s fast start to the campaign. Someone else to watch out for is James Ward-Prowse, yet another of Southampton’s impressive academy graduates. The 20-year-old played all 90 minutes of their recent 2-0 victory over Arsenal and is a gifted crosser and passer of the ball.
Ward-Prowse may assume much of the creative burden in Mane’s absence, and with United’s constantly changing back line, his movement will offer a particular threat. At the heart of that defence Jonny Evans’ place may be in danger, especially if Van Gaal opts for a back four. In such a case, he would be competing with Phil Jones, Paddy McNair and Rojo, each of whom offer conspicuously more security than he does at the moment.
All told, this fixture has something of the frustrating stalemate about it, with Koeman’s men obstinate in defence and United perhaps lacking that extra level of cohesion in attack. So we may see ourselves in the same position as last year, with another draw between these two teams — a result that will speak little to the progress both have made in the last 12 months.
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