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Tactics Board- Martial glory as Rooney flounders

Tactics BoardSouthampton FC [2] vs [3] Manchester United
St Mary’s Stadium – 20 September 2015

A Manchester United victory over Liverpool last week was followed by a lost away to PSV midweek in the Champions League. More damaging was Luke Shaw’s broken leg, meaning that Louis Van Gaal needed to change his back line. Led by another Dutch coach, Southampton has struggled to rediscover the form that led to a 7th place finish in the league. With no love lost between the coaches, the Saints were set up to take advantage of United’s weaknesses.

Manchester United (4-2-3-1)
Louis Van Gaal made 3 changes from the side that played in Eindhoven in midweek. The backline was unchanged except for Marcos Rojo coming in at left-back in place of an injured Luke Shaw. Michael Carrick started with Morgan Schneiderlin, getting a start on his return to St. Mary’s, in the midfield. Memphis Depay and Juan Mata started on the wings, with Wayne Rooney coming back into the side behind Anthony Martial.

Southampton FC (4-2-3-1)
With 3 changes from the side that drew with West Brom, Ronald Koeman set his side up in his standard 4-2-3-1. On-loan goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg started behind a back-four of Maya Yoshida (RB), Jose Fonte (CB), Virgil Van Dijk (CB), and Matt Targett (LB). Oriol Romeu replaced Steven Davis in the midfield, alongside Victor Wanyama.
The attacking four consisted of James Ward-Prowse on the right, Dusan Tadic on the left, with Sadio Mane as the central attacking midfielder behind a strong center-forward Graziano Pelle.

Starting Lineup for Southampton vs Manchester United

Starting Lineup for Southampton vs Manchester United



  • Wayne Rooney returned to the starting line-up, but was ineffective at creating chances for his team.
  • Pelle’s strength proved to be a challenge for United’s backline.
  • United struggled in the build-up in the first 20 minutes, until Mata came more centrally and gave them a numerical advantage in the midfield.
  • Mane’s movement and pace cause problems, finding space and drifting wide until Schneiderlin dropped deeper to mark him.

The Red Devils struggle with the Saints pace and power

This game was always going to be a struggle for Manchester United, as Ronald Koeman set up his side to take advantage of United’s weaknesses. The Saints coach talked in his press conference about Daley Blind’s lack of strength, and he used the strength of Graziano Pelle against him.

Southampton are known as a team that presses high up the pitch, but in this game they followed the game plan used by several teams before. They controlled the early part of the game by remaining compact in defense, with Sadio Mane man-marking Michael Carrick and Graziano Pelle staying close to Morgan Schneiderlin. This meant that United had problems playing the ball out of the back, and were frequently reduced to playing long balls up to the front. While Anthony Martial isn’t a good target man, he won more aerial duels than you would expect from a 5’11” 19-year old. This still meant United posed little threat.

Manchester United's passes into the final third in the first 20 minutes (FourFourTwo Stats Zone)

Manchester United’s passes into the final third in the first 20 minutes (FourFourTwo Stats Zone)

Manchester United has done well defensively this season, with one of the best presses in the Premier League, but they struggled in this game. As mentioned before, Michael Carrick doesn’t look the most comfortable in Louis Van Gaal’s pressing scheme. This was evident for Southampton’s first goal, as Morgan Schneiderlin was pressing high up the pitch but Michael Carrick failed to cover the space behind him. Sadio Mane found the space, and this started the counter-attack that led to the goal.

Pelle used his physicality against United’s backline, with both Blind and Smalling struggling against him. This allowed the Saints to always have an easy way to relieve the Red Devils pressure. Whereas United were forced to play it long to their striker, this was the Saints preferred attack. United’s press did an excellent job at not allowing Southampton to play through the middle, with Southampton’s midfield marked out of the game.

Sadio Mane's heat map vs Manchester United (Squawka)

Sadio Mane’s heat map vs Manchester United (Squawka)

Playing behind Pelle as the playmaker was Sadio Mane. Normally considered a wide player, he showed in this game how skilled he is through the middle. He was good at finding the space between the lines, and wasn’t afraid to drift into wide positions to attack. United adjusted to this as the game wore on, with Morgan Schneiderlin focusing on marking Mane instead of pressing the Saint’s deeper midfielders up the field.

United adjusts and starts to control

After the opening 20 minutes, United made an adjustment. With Mane and Pelle being so effective at preventing passes into Schneiderlin and Carrick, Wayne Rooney started dropping to assist in the build-up. This proved to be key in allowing Manchester United to play out of the back. Rooney had a poor game, contributing little in the final third and most of United’s best play came from bypassing him, but his dropping deep had an important impact on this game. Dropping deep allowed Manchester United more control in the center of the pitch, and it also freed up space in the middle for Juan Mata to play in.

Mata struggled in mid-week in the number 10 role, but here he was able to play in the space vacated by Rooney when he dropped deep. He had a better effect on this game than he has in past game, and he’s most dangerous when he stays high up the pitch. Some games, such as midweek against PSV, he drops too deep and this limits his influence. In this game, by staying high up the pitch he was key to United’s first goal and scored the game winner.

Juan Mata's heat map vs Southampton (Squawka)

Juan Mata’s heat map vs Southampton (Squawka)

With United taking more control of the game, Southampton struggled to create chances. Schneiderlin was effective defending deeper, ensuring that Mane couldn’t pick up the second balls from Pelle. The substitution of Antonio Valencia for Matteo Darmian was also important, as the Italian struggled against Dusan Tadic for much of the first half. Once Valencia game in, he did a better job of limiting Tadic’s chances.

After a sloppy back pass by Yoshida gave Manchester United a 2-1 lead, Ronald Koeman brought Steven Davis on for Oriol Romeu. He offered more going forward, but the Saints now lost compactness. There was more central space, and United was unable to exploit it with a poor performance by Rooney.

After taking a 3-1 lead, Manchester United again struggled to close out a game. Shane Long’s introduction meant a very nervy last 10 minutes for the Red Devils, with him and Mane now attacking the second balls off of Graziano Pelle. The Saints second goal came from Mane, after he received the ball wide and dribbled past Blind, who was now playing at left-back after Marcos Rojo was subbed off, before delivering a cross in for Pelle to head home. The lack of Luke Shaw’s pace at left-back became an issue as Mane was consistently able to get the better of Blind.


An exciting game between two Dutch coaches who have similar visions. Southampton tried to exploit United’s problems dealing with low block defenses, and worked hard to prevent balls into Manchester’s midfield. Their plan worked until Rooney started dropping deep, giving United a numerical advantage. This also freed up space centrally for Mata to work in. He struggled at mid-week in the number 10 role, but here he was able to find space in the areas vacated by Wayne Rooney. Again United played their best when Mata was involved around the penalty area. However it is becoming worrying at the continued poor form of United’s captain, and Anthony Martial’s excellent performance up front can only hide Rooney’s poor form for so long.

Comments are always welcome!

By Joe Schurhammer (@RangeRooney)

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