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The Tactics Board- MUFC 3-2 Southampton: Robin to the Rescue

After another close game against Fulham, Manchester United travelled to St. Mary’s Stadium for Sir Alex Ferguson’s 1000th league game against newly promoted Southampton. Nigel Adkin’s side came into the game without any points but they had a close affair to open the season against champions Manchester City at the Etihad. The Red Devils had another near miss in this game, as they struggled to deal with Southampton’s pressure in the midfield and Rickie Lambert’s aerial ability. Southampton defended well, causing problems for Manchester United’s attack while Morgan Schnelderlin caused problems for United’s defense with his late runs. If not for 2 goals in the closing minutes of the match, the Red Devil’s would have lost their second game of the season.



Manchester United vs. Southampton FC

St Mary’s Stadium – September 2nd, 2012

Game Setup-

Manchester United Lineup(4-2-1-3)-
Sir Alex Ferguson lined the team up in the 4-2-1-3 that they’ve used a couple times already this season. This formation is an off-shoot of a standard 4-3-3, with one change. One of the midfielders plays further forward, functioning as a ‘trequartista’. The ‘trequartista’ tries to operate in the gap between the opposition’s defensive and midfield lines.

Fergie made a few changes on the team that won over Fulham a week earlier. One of the most notable changes was at goalkeeper, where Anders Lindegaard got his first start with the first team since January. David De Gea was dropped to the bench after the mistake against Fulham that led to their second goal. Ahead of Lindegaard, Rafael started at right back for the second game in a row while Patrice Evra started again at left back. In the center of the defense, Manchester United finally got their first team defense pairing together for the first time since December 2011. Rio Ferdinand recovered from his injury quicker than expected, and got the start alongside Nemanja Vidic, who wore the captain’s armband again.

With Rio Ferdinand fit to start in defense, Michael Carrick to moved to his natural position and start deep in the central midfield alongside Tom Cleverley. Cleverley and Carrick operated deep in the midfield, functioning as a double pivot to control possession, and changing the point of attack from side to side in an effort to find and exploit gaps. Ahead of them, in the playmaking ‘trequartista’ role, Shinji Kagawa started again after impressive showings in his first 2 league appearances for the club.

With this formation, United has 3 forwards operating high up the field with the wingers operating in an advanced position to offer a more attacking look. With Wayne Rooney injured, Robin Van Persie started centrally up front, with Danny Welbeck supporting him on the left wing and Antonio Valencia on the right wing.

Defensively, the 3 forwards are used to pressure the opponent high up the pitch, attempting to force an early turnover, while the 3 midfielders in the middle of the pitch make it hard to overrun.

Starting Formation

Southampton FC Lineup(4-3-3)-
Southampton came out in a 4-3-3, definitely a more attacking formation than most lower table clubs will choose to play against the Red Devils. With most of his first team resting in the victory over Stevenage in the League Cup midweek, Nigel Adkin’s had his best available to play against the visiting Red Devils. Kelvin Davis started in the goal, having started every league game for the Saints so far. In central defense, 28-year old Jose Fonte started alongside Jos Hooiveld. At left back, Daniel Fox got the unenviable job of dealing with Antonio Valencia, while starting at right-back is former Crystal Palace player Nathaniel Clyne, who had been linked with Manchester United for much of the past year.

In the midfield, Nigel Adkin opted for defensive solidity, so he made a couple changes from the squad that lost to Wigan a week earlier. He opted to start two holding midfielders, with Morgan Schnelderlin, and starting deep alongside him right of center was 17-year old James Ward-Prowse. Ward-Prowse got the start after putting in an extremely impressive performance in the League Cup in midweek. The third midfielder was Steven Davis.

Leading the 3 forwards up front was 29-year old Rickie Lambert, who picked up the Player of the Year award last season in the Championship. He’s looked impressive early for the Saints, scoring a goal against Manchester City 4 minutes after coming on as a sub. Supporting him on the right wing was club captain Adam Lallana, the youngest in the Premier League at only 24 years of age. Playing on the left wing was Jason Puncheon, who netted a goal against Stevenage mid-week in the League Cup.

Key Points-

  • Southampton presses aggressively in the midfield, disrupting Carrick and Cleverley
  • Southampton plays a 4-3-3 when attacking, but drops into a 4-5-1 in defense.
  • Van Persie looks impressive, bagging a hat trick in his second start for the Red Devils
  • Rickie Lambert’s aerial abilities puts Vidic and Ferdinand under pressure all game.
  • Paul Scholes puts on a passing master class as a sub, fueling United’s late comeback.
  • Again United are victimized by a hard charging central midfielder


Southampton presses United early

Southampton came out in an attacking formation to challenge the Red Devils. Most newly promoted squad would play fairly defensively, hoping to limit chances for the opposition and hoping to snag a goal late in the game, but the Saints came out more aggressive. On defense, Southampton played a 4-5-1. The central midfield had 2 holding midfielders, with Morgan Schnelderlin playing deep in the middle of the pitch. Supporting him on the right side was James Ward-Prowse. On the left side, they played more of a box-to-box midfielder in Steven Davis. Out wide, Adam Lallana and Jason Puncheon dropped back to help defend. This meant that Southampton functioned with a deep bank of 4 defenders, and in front of them was a line of 5 midfielders.

With 9 players getting behind the ball to defend, it made it extremely difficult for Manchester United to break down. In addition, Southampton’s midfield pressed very aggressively against United’s midfield when they had the ball. They didn’t press high up the field against United’s back line, with Rickie Lambert left alone up front. His task was to mainly stay open as a deep threat instead of chasing down the ball. But, as soon as United passed the ball into the midfield, the Saint’s midfield was quick to close down the space and give United’s midfield no time on the ball.

This pressure was very evident in the performance of Tom Cleverley and Michael Carrick. They struggled all game to deal with the Saint’s aggressive defense. After a solid performance against Fulham, Cleverley struggled alongside Carrick. There was often too much space between the central midfielders, restricting passing options and Michael Carrick didn’t look as sharp as he has in the past. Between Southampton’s pressure, and some rust for Carrick, United’s midfield struggled and misplaced passes that gave the Saint’s quality counter attacking opportunities.

Pressure makes results

While Southampton lined up in a 4-5-1 on defense, when attacking they transformed into a 4-3-3. Adam Lallana on the right and Jason Puncheon on the left were quick to press up the field and attack United’s fullbacks. The success of their defense came from how they pressed the Red Devils. They didn’t look to press United high up the field, instead, the left and right wingers would immediately drop deep to make up a line of 5 midfielders. This meant that Southampton’s defense wasn’t spread out, and they were extremely tough to break down.

With the heavy pressure on defense, Southampton looked to attack on the counter and they were successful at it. The heavy pressure in the midfield led to turnovers and quick counter attacks. A perfect example of this came in the 16th minute, when Southampton scored their first goal. It started with Schnelderlin intercepting a hurried pass by Cleverley near the halfway line. The Saints quickly countered down the right side, with Schnelderlin passing to Stephen Davis, who quickly played the ball out wide to the fullback Nathaniel Clyne. With Evra slow to close him down, he struck a cross towards Rickie Lambert at the back post, who got up above Rafael, and headed the ball into the net past a helpless Anders Lindegaard.

United’s attack struggles up front

Playing in their 4-2-1-3, United hoped to come out with a strong attack and overrun the Saint’s defense. Robin Van Persie started up front with Antonio Valencia playing on the right wing. The Ecuadorian stayed very wide on the right, near the touchline in the hopes of stretching the Saint’s defense. Starting on the left-wing up front was Danny Welbeck, but he played very narrow and attempted to link-up with Van Persie.

Manchester United really struggled with Southampton’s defense, and it was evident early on. Even though they struggled to deal with the Saint’s pressure, the Red Devils were able to easily control possession early on, but they were slow to move the ball forward, and slow to pass the ball around the pitch. This allowed Southampton to get their defense setup, with a bank of 4 defenders and 5 midfielders.

Struggling to deal with the pressure, and having problems playing successful probing passes forward, the Red Devil’s started trying to play balls over Southampton’s defense to Robin Van Persie. Michael Carrick frequently looked to play a lobbed ball to Van Persie behind the defense, trying to extend the defense. United had some success with this strategy, but they weren’t able to convert into goals.

Defense and Counter-Attack

As they struggled to break down a solid Southampton defense, Manchester United adopted a different defense strategy. Playing a formation very similar to 4-3-3, they stuck with that formation defensively too. Van Persie, Welbeck and Valencia pressured Southampton high up the field and tried to disrupt their build up early. By pressing high up the field, the Red Devils tried to force turnovers that would give them counter attacking opportunities, allowing them to attack Southampton’s defense before it got setup.

This strategy had success, leading to United’s equalizing goal. In the 23rd minute, the Red Devils were able to bring the ball up the field quickly after an interception. Welbeck received the ball and dribbled inside before passing wide right for an open Valencia. The right-winger had plenty of space and came towards the penalty area before threading a cross to Van Persie, who had time after his marker, Nathaniel Clyne, slipped. The Dutch striker chested the ball down to his feet, and took a powerful shot with his left leg. Even with a difficult angle, he was still able to thread the ball into the net, even after a slight deflection by Goalkeeper Davis.

After scoring the first goal, United looked incredibly dangerous on the counter. They were able to move the ball forward quickly, and attack the Saints before their defense could get organized. The speed and movement of these attacks continued to cause serious issues for Southampton.

The aggressive pressing of United’s front three caused another great chance in the 55th minute. A sloppy pass from Southampton’s goalkeeper to Daniel Fox was intercepted by Antonio Valencia. In a quick counter-attack, he passed the ball centrally to an unmarked Van Persie at the top of the 18 yard box. Fortunately for Southampton, the normally deadly accurate striker dragged the shot well wide.

Kagawa and Welbeck struggle

Danny Welbeck got another start for the Red Devils, starting as the left winger. As he has in previous games, he played very narrow on the left side, always playing central to try and link up with Van Persie. By playing so narrow, he caused problems for both United, and the Saints. With Welbeck inside, United struggled to get any width to their attack on that side of the field. It was frequently left to Patrice Evra to get forward to stretch out the defense. While Evra has been effective coming forward on the attack, it leaves United more vulnerable to quick counter attacks. They are able to take advantage of the space behind Evra.

Welbeck’s narrow play also caused problems for the Saints. Southampton’s right back, Nathaniel Clyne, struggled defensively even though he was frequently left with no one to mark, as Welbeck played so narrow that he was frequently marked by a center-back. Clyne was still left to defend very narrow, to pick up Welbeck if he moved out wide, but this left space that Evra and others were able to take advantage of.

Kagawa Heatmap

Shinji Kagawa has looked very impressive so far for Manchester United, but he struggled in this game. By having 5 midfielders defending across, Kagawa really struggled to find any space. He attempted moving laterally to find space, but there was little space to find due to Southampton’s tight defense. He had some success on the left side, moving into the space left open by Welbeck playing inside, but United struggled to get him the ball. With no space, Kagawa was forced to move deeper into the midfield to get the ball, but this meant he wasn’t in the positions where he is most dangerous, using his clever one-touch passes to link up with the forwards.

Another central midfield causes problems

Both James Ward-Prowse and Steven Davis had very quiet games for the Saints. They both tended to stay fairly deep, focusing primarily on defending and contributing little in terms of attacking assistance. Morgan Schnelderlin was another story though. Defensively, he played as the deepest central midfield, sitting right in the gap that a ‘trequartista’ like Kagawa would exploit. He had a very good game defensively, but he was equally effective on the attack.

Schnelderlin sat deep, gathering the ball off the back four and playing it forward to start the attack. But, unlike most holding midfielders, he didn’t just remain sitting deep. He frequently made forward runs, often arriving late near the box and this caused problems for United’s defense. Defensively, Kagawa stayed further forward to mark Ward-Prowse, while Cleverley and Carrick sat deeper. They struggled at times to deal with the late arriving runs, and this was evident in the goal that gave Southampton a 2-1 lead.

Defensive pressure started the play in the 55th minute. After forcing a turnover with pressure in the midfield, Southampton played the ball forward. Jason Puncheon cut inside with the ball and played a pass out wide left to Rickie Lambert. Given some space by Valencia, Lambert floated in a cross to the back post that Schnelderlin was easily able to head in the net, after Patrice Evra slipped to the ground and left the midfielder completely unmarked.

Another issue for United came on their right side. Patrice Evra struggled defensively, and it was made worse due to Danny Welbeck pressing high up the pitch. This meant that Evra was left struggling to deal with Jason Puncheon, and the ambitious attacking runs of Clyne. They were frequently able to get 2v1 chances against Evra, as Welbeck was slow to track back defensively.

Substitutions and shift in the attack

When United found themselves down 2-1 in the second half, Sir Alex Ferguson made some changes and went back to a more familiar play style. Paul Scholes and Nani came on for Tom Cleverley and Shinji Kagawa. With these changes, United swapped the 4-2-1-3 for a more traditional 4-4-1-1 with Danny Welbeck up front and Van Persie behind him. Nani moved into the left wing, while Antonio Valencia stayed wide right. The central midfield consisted of Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes, a pairing that was very effective last season.

With the lead, Southampton started to drop deeper in defense and started playing a true 4-5-1. They stopped pushing their wingers so far up the pitch on the attack, opting to keep them slightly deeper to be in a better position defensively.

As Evra struggled defensively, the Saints gave him a reprieve. As the second half wore on, Jason Puncheon started to cut inside more, relying on Clyne to get down the line on the attack. This helped United as it removed the possibility of 2v1 overloads against Evra.

United’s attack became much more dangerous after Paul Scholes came on the field. Playing in the center with Michael Carrick, he started to take control of the game. As the Saints started sitting deeper, and pressing less in the midfield, Scholes had the time and space necessary to distribute the ball around the field more quickly.

Sir Alex Ferguson said, “”But we didn’t start playing until Scholes came onto the pitch with his range of passing, his consistency of passing and his presence turned the game for us.”

Another change greatly increased United’s attack, as the Red Devils now had a true winger on the left side instead of Welbeck. This allowed Scholes to play long diagonal balls to the wingers, and they were finally able to open up the Saints defense.

Hat Trick

United had a chance to tie the game in the 68th minute, when Van Persie was taken down inside the box by Jos Hooiveld. Instead of powering the ball into the net, like he normally does, he took an extremely poor penalty shot that Kelvin Davis was easily able to deflect wide. This looked like it could have cost United 3 points.

Soon afterwards Danny Welbeck was taken off for Javier Hernandez, and he took his place in front Robin Van Persie. Chicharito played well, stretching the Saints defense but it was eventually United’s new striker who saved 3 points.

In the 87th minute, Nani played in a poor corner. Southampton tried to clear the ball but United were immediately able to win the ball back and pass it to Rafael on the right side. He played a cross in towards the penalty spot for a completely unmarked Rio Ferdinand. The center-back headed the ball down and it bounced off the ground and then off the far post. In a race of reaction time, Van Persie was able to pounce on the ball and put it in before 2 Southampton defenders could clear the ball away.

Now Southampton was desperate in defense, but United controlled the game and the winning goal went in 2 minutes into stoppage time.

The winning goal came from a corner. Nani was finally able to deliver a successful corner that found Van Persie just in front of his marker on the edge of the 6 yard box. He was able to take a header to power the ball just over the goalkeeper and into the back of the net.


This was a close game, with Manchester United very fortunate to escape with 3 points. Southampton did extremely well to pressure United’s attack, causing mistakes and turnovers. Again United struggled to deal with strong central midfielders, and aerial threats. Sir Alex Ferguson has got to be hoping that as his center-back pairing gets more game together, that their performances will improve.

Towards the end of the game, Nigel Adkins did his best to assist Sir Alex Ferguson by removing Rickie Lambert in the 74th minute. This removed a dangerous aerial threat that United struggled to deal with all game long, but it also removed a player whose strong aerial ability could have been used in defending the corners at the end of the game.

Sir Alex Ferguson’s 1000th league game ended in an appropriate fashion, with another last minute victory. Now comes the international break, which will hopefully bring more players back from the injury list for the game against Wigan.

By RangeRooney