Much like when approaching a crunch home fixture with Liverpool last weekend, United must once again pick themselves up and dust themselves off following a 2-1 defeat to PSV Eindhoven on Tuesday. Against Liverpool they achieved that, perhaps by virtue of defensive errors by the visitors offering glaring openings, but either way, the Reds came out three points richer, confident that defeat to Swansea had been nothing by a mere hiccup.
Now United make the long journey to Southampton licking their wounds, as they come to terms with a second defeat in three matches, wounds much more significant than imaginable after a tragic double leg fracture for Luke Shaw once again denied him the opportunity to face his former employers.
Perhaps the full-back’s horrific injury played heavily on the mind of concerned teammates for the game’s remaining 65 minutes, but once again, the main take-away for United was a distinctly flat feeling of failing to capitalise on overwhelming possession (67%) and lack of cutting edge as well as question marks regarding strength in depth at the back particularly.
As attention turns back to the Premier League once again, United come up against a Southampton side suffering some problems of their own, having recorded just one victory from their last seven in all competitions and seemingly struggling to come to terms with the loss of former talisman, turned devil, Morgan Schneiderlin.
The Saints have however rediscovered some of the defensive mettle they possessed for much of last season, having conceded just twice in their previous five matches – both coming in the Europa League. United’s defence however remains a question mark following Shaw’s long-term casualty, with cracks beginning to emerge relatively quickly following his replacement by Marcos Rojo.
United unashamedly stole the points at St Mary’s last season thanks to a Robin van Persie brace which saw Southampton enjoy the majority of possession and register a staggering 15 efforts on goal as opposed to just three for van Gaal’s side. There have been drastic improvements for the Reds in the nine months that have followed, but another difficult trip for United offers a huge test of character in putting our powers of recovery to the test once again.
Here are five keys to a United victory over Southampton:
Louis van Gaal is an extremely proud man. We learnt of this long before his Manchester United career began and his iron will and often hard-nosed approach has led to some fairly unsavoury incidents and breakdowns of relationships over his long and often glittering career.
For all the well-documented fall-outs there are also several success stories which often go without mention. You only have to look at Bastian Schweinsteiger as evidence of a man more than willing to serve a second term of employment under the Dutchman’s ruling, while the Germany captain’s former club are currently benefiting no end from van Gaal’s introduction of the likes of Thomas Muller and David Alaba to name but a few.
When it comes to Ronald Koeman though, things certainly aren’t quite so rosy. The pair’s difficult relationship stems from their time together at Ajax, with van Gaal technical director to Koeman’s head coach. The breakdown in the pair’s relationship was cited as the reason for Louis’ departure with things remaining frosty ever since.
Having already tasted defeat this week in his home country, to a fellow Dutch manager in Phillip Cocu, defeat to Southampton, and specifically Koeman would be a much more difficult pill to swallow for the 64-year-old. For someone prepared to lay-out huge sums in order to build a Portuguese holiday home more lavish and in direct sight of his foe’s own retreat, getting one up on a man van Gaal once “trusted too much” according to Dutch journalist Hugo Borst, will be of the utmost importance and will no doubt be outlined to the players.
Responding to the Shaw situation
A matter of months ago, it would have been hard to believe that Luke Shaw would quickly establish himself as such a key member of the first-team setup at Old Trafford after fitness concerns restricted him to just 18 starts in his debut season, with Daley Blind often excelling in the his absence in the left-back role.
After extensive fitness work over the summer and a slight failure to immediately live up to the billing surrounding Shaw’s big-money move from Southampton, Louis van Gaal declared pre-season that this, would be the season in which the full-back would emerge. He was right. The 20-year-old has excelled in a settled back line for United during this campaign, looking stronger, fitter, more focussed, extremely adept in both attack and defence and starting to hugely deliver on the £30million worth of potential the club invested in last summer.
A tragic double leg-break suffered on Tuesday night will leave the England man out for the majority of the campaign, while any hopes of making the plane for the summer’s European Championships are surely now out of the window. United therefore will be forced to make changes to a consistent back-four with defensive reinforcements who offer little in the way of encouragement.
Marcos Rojo was called upon to replace Shaw on Tuesday, marking his first appearance of the season, and found himself in the centre of defence alongside Chris Smalling, with Daley Blind once again occupying the left full-back position. The Dutchman offered solidarity in the role last season, but his switch on Tuesday night came as something of a surprise given the effective partnership he has formed with Smalling, particularly with Rojo more than capable out wide – a role he occupies for his country.
Frailties were exposed by the Dutch side following Memhpis Depay’s opener, with the usually reliable Matteo Darmian somewhat culpable for each of the home side’s goals, while a lack of communication and failure to effectively track between Rojo and Blind saw Narsingh ghost in to head home the winner.
Rojo will undoubtedly be called upon to replace Shaw at St Mary’s but should do so as a direct replacement. Blind’s passing is an effective tool from a wide position, as seen for another assist on Tuesday, but the Dutchman’s calming presence alongside Smalling will be a necessity once again if United are to come with all three points.
Having sat out United’s previous two fixtures with a hamstring injury, Louis van Gaal has suggested that Rooney may, once again, be fit to start at St Mary’s on Sunday. Since his last appearance in red, Rooney has eclipsed Sir Bobby Charlton’s record as England’s all-time top goalscorer following penalties against both San Marino and Switzerland.
The Red’s captain finds himself just 16 behind Charlton’s club record of 249, but has failed to find the net for the club in the Premier League in his last 10 appearances. His hat-trick against Brugge as well as his international goals will certainly offer Rooney plenty of encouragement, but his credentials to lead the line alone with great success have been called into question this season, with the manager’s decision to bring in only 19-year-old Anthony Martial as competition somewhat baffling.
Martial has already showed glimpses of the potential United forked out for – his debut goal against Liverpool last weekend will be etched in the memory for a long time to come. With Martial’s sudden emergence, as well as James Wilson looking as though any prospective loan deal might be off, there are options other than Rooney available to van Gaal if the captain were to continue with his shortcomings in front of goal.
Where he can often fall short in terms of passing or reactions, one thing Rooney can never be questioned on however is his hunger and desire to succeed. He’s been rewarded on the international stage with his name in the history books now for the foreseeable future, with many more likely to be added to the 50 strikes already to his name over the coming years. Just 16 shy for his country, the fire will be burning in Wayne’s belly to achieve a similar feat for Manchester United. It’s more than achievable to do so this season if United’s attack to begin to make good on their dominance of possession in matches.
Schneiderlin to show Saints what they’re missing
Southampton have seen their squad decimated over the past few years, with Ronald Koeman trusted with completely overhaul his squad having lost key members of the first team in Chambers, Lovren, Lallana, Shaw, Lambert and this summer, Nathaniel Clyne. The big money earned through their sales was invested wisely by the club, who against the odds were led to a seventh place finish last season, just two points behind Liverpool who have laid out over £60m to the South Coast club in little over a year.
The problems have begun however for Saints this season, having seen Morgan Schneiderlin head to Old Trafford for a sum in the region of £24million. The Frenchman’s presence has been greatly missed in the Saints midfield, where he formed an exceptional partnership with Victor Wanyama. His former club have managed just three victories since his departure, two of which have come in their short-lived Europa League campaign.
Schneiderlin’s impact at Southampton can’t be underestimated, earning a spot in the French World Cup squad last summer as he registered the most interceptions of all Premier League midfielders and the most tackles of any Premier League player since Saints returned to the top flight in 2012.
Identified as a long-term replacement for Michael Carrick, Schneiderlin has already given some much needed bite and tenacity to a United midfield found dearly lacking in that area, while his partnership with fellow new arrival, Bastian Schweinsteiger continues to prosper.
The midfield duo have been largely responsible for the vast amounts of possession and control enjoyed by United this season, in keeping with the manager’s philosophy and will look to exert a similar spell of dominance at St Mary’s on Sunday.
Address shortcomings on the road
If United are to improve on last season’s minimum requirement of fourth place, it’s imperative that the Reds radically improve on a distinctly average record away from home. Since arriving at the club, van Gaal has taken charge of 21 away fixtures in the Premier league, winning just seven, drawing eight and losing six times.
After significant investment in the squad once again, the United faithful will be hoping for an improved showing this year, building on fourth place, rather than merely treading water as we have seen Arsenal do for the last decade.
Both Chelsea and Arsenal have suffered multiple blips on their record at this early stage of the season, handing United the opportunity to take advantage and maintain a six point lead over the Champions, while they can put daylight between Arsenal following their defeat to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
United have been handed 2-1 defeats in their previous to away matches to both PSV and Swansea, while making life much more difficult than necessary in a narrow 1-0 victory at Villa Park early in the season.
Improvements to a lacklustre away record are essential in the manager taking his squad to the next level as they look to turn their extended spells of dominance into positive results.
Prediction: Southampton 1-1 United