This weekend my beloved but goal shy Saints take on one of the early pace setters in Manchester United. The pain of our unfortunate and arguably unjust defeat in the EFL Cup final last season to the same opponents still lingers; so there will be hope that a yearning for revenge will breathe some life into a Saints side lacking in confidence and creativity at present.
Saints will be seeking positivity and inspiration this Saturday. Both were provided in our previous game against an admittedly poor Crystal Palace side, a match which marked the arrival of Mario Lemina into the consciousness of Premier League football fans. The Gabon international’s strength, mobility and positional sense impressed many an observer, with thoroughly original ‘Welcome to Liverpool’ jokes made by mouth breathing onlookers countless times on social media. Shanter of the highest order.
Lemina’s industry and physicality stood out, but there were other aspects of the performance from the team and other individuals to take hope from. Steven Davis, able thanks to Lemina’s presence to take up his preferred advanced central role, was dynamic and tireless. He harried Palace’s midfielders and recycled possession expertly. He also provided us with his one goal every blue moon with a decent, if slightly scuffed finish from a rebound. The quality of the shot is rendered irrelevant not only by it going in though, but also by the simple fact that he was doing something our midfielders haven’t been doing often enough for some time; getting into the box to capitalise on loose balls.
Palace went into the game not having scored a single goal in the league, and if there’s one man who will be more pleased than any other at that remaining the case it’s Fraser Forster. The big man hasn’t been at his best for some time now, with low confidence a major factor in this long form dip. Facing an attack as toothless as Palace’s will have done him a world of good in this respect.
Although most of his work was comfortable, he had to make a couple of crucial saves; but they were from the sort of point blank shots which you’d feel an in form striker would have put away. Fortunately, he was faced by the immensely out of sorts Christian Benteke, who was awful in every aspect of his performance. The giant Belgian was even dominated in the air by the comparatively diminutive Maya Yoshida on multiple occasions.
Aside from the previous game there’s also the return of Virgil van Dijk to the first team fold which is cause for cautious optimism. If he can bring a suitable level of commitment to our cause then it will be brilliant to have him in the side as he is genuinely one of the finest all round defenders in the Premier League.
Onto our opposition, and with the dawn of the new season, United have left last year’s mediocre league form in the dust. They have so far been able to translate their excellent cup and European performances from the previous campaign to their league form this term with ease. This is due in no small part to a kind run of early fixtures and to their heavy investment on pieces to complete their tactical jigsaw. Whilst many United fans will agree that the puzzle isn’t quite finished yet (their squad depth isn’t quite as formidable as their sky blue neighbours’); the consensus is that the additions they have made are excellent ones which plug major holes in their lineup.
It’s arguable that Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matic are filling voids which United have had in their side since Fergie retired in 2013 and before. In Lukaku, they have a focal point in attack akin to Robin van Persie in that title winning season and in Matic they have the combative midfield presence not seen since Roy Keane terrorised opposition over a decade ago.
With the form that United are currently in, I feel it would be wise for Saints to line up in a 5-2-2-1 formation, utilising wing backs to provide width and two attacking midfielders behind a lone striker to provide creativity in an otherwise defensive formation. This tactic plays to our strengths as our best personnel are our centre halves, full backs and holding midfielders. It would be naive to believe that we could compete toe to toe with this United side and so our best chance of a result is to keep things tight without the ball and attempt to play on the break. This might seem like a negative approach, but in light of our inability to put the ball in the net going out with the intention of outscoring this United side is suicidal.
There is some solace for Saints to take, however, as the monstrous presence that is Paul Pogba will be absent from United’s midfield for this game as he is out with a hamstring injury. How Saints expect United to go about replacing him in midfield should have a bearing on how they line up against the Red Devils.
If it’s a continuation from last weekend, then it will be Marouane Fellaini who takes up the midfield role alongside Matic in United’s eleven. This could prove to be positive for Saints, as Fellaini offers the sort of threat our defence and midfield are more capable of dealing with. This is because the alternative is Ander Herrera, who started against Burton in midweek and offers more technically than the frizzy haired Belgian. If he replaces Pogba then Saints will want to focus more on winning the midfield battle rather than simply containing United’s attack.
Overall, it’s the sort of game that Saints will be treating almost as a free hit. Taking anything off of United points wise will be a bonus, but our fans will be hoping that the team at least puts in a performance which builds on the signs of positivity generated by the match at Palace.