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Analysis: Meaningless fixtures produce meaningless football

In a game that meant nothing to either team, perhaps a nil-nil draw between Southampton and Manchester United was inevitable.

With the Europa League final just seven days away, Jose Mourinho continued to rotate his squad and manage the fitness levels of his players. Axel Tuanzebe was selected in midfield for the second consecutive match, Marouane Fellaini returned from a domestic suspension and Wayne Rooney led the line up front. Sergio Romero started in goal in order to get minutes on the pitch ahead of his European commitments next Wednesday.

This game was played at a pedestrian pace. Neither side have anything left to play for in the Premier League this season, so there was a relaxed atmosphere at the start of this game, one that would be more associated with a preseason friendly than a top flight league fixture.

It meant that the game was devoid of any real character. Under these circumstances it is difficult to analyse the effectiveness of either tactical system because no matter which side you look at, there wasn’t the required intensity present in either performance.

The patterns of play also demonstrated that same malaise that affected the entire match. In the first half, despite dominated possession and territory, Southampton rarely threatened Manchester United’s goal with any serious intent. Despite saving Manolo Gabbiadini’s early penalty, Sergio Romero was relatively untroubled throughout the first 45 minutes.

Southampton completed 81% of their passes in the first half but rarely threatened to score. Credit: Squawka.

Southampton moved the ball well through midfield, completing a lot of passes in the middle third of the field, but they did not make the most of their possession in the final third. Despite completing 81% of their passes, they were careless with their use of the ball in more advanced areas, giving it away time and time again. On another day you might point to good defensive organisation as an explanation for Southampton’s profligacy with the ball, however tonight the reasoning was clear; they were flat, lacked intensity and rarely made the right movements off the ball to create space in these situations in order to progress each particular attacking phase.

Then you take a look at Manchester United, whose manager has already admitted he doesn’t want to play these final Premier League fixtures and is simply looking ahead to a monumental European final next week. They played with the same level of apathy, the same malaise and the same carelessness in possession. It might surprise you, but you’ve already seen what I’m about to show you.

Manchester United were equally as poor in possession during the first 45 minutes. Credit: Squawka.

Like Southampton, Manchester United moved the ball well in midfield but were wasteful in the final third. They had less of the ball than Southampton, a consequence of their lack of intensity without the ball. They were happy to let Southampton have the ball and weren’t particularly rushed in their efforts to win it back. When Manchester United did move into the Southampton half, especially in the first half, they gave it away needlessly and failed to create many chances at all. Just as Southampton showed when they had the ball, United lacked the movement and intensity necessary to create the right conditions for successful attacking football. Just take note of how infrequently either team actually penetrated the opposition penalty area with a successful pass. That should tell you everything you need to know about the quality of the match this evening.

There was one positive for Manchester United. Axel Tuanzebe. The young central defender is an accomplished footballer. Wise head on young shoulders, mature and responsible on the pitch and capable of playing first team football to an excellent standard.

Axel Tuanzebe barely put a foot wrong all evening, completing 93% of his passes. Credit: Squawka.

Despite playing out of position in central midfield, Tuanzebe was again a standout performer for United. Calm under pressure, neat and tidy with the ball at his feet and intelligent with his positioning, Tuanzebe completed 93% of his passes and played very well for an hour before being substituted. At 19 years old, he has a very big future ahead of him.

So just one more to go then. One more meaningless football match to endure before the big one. The fact that the ‘big one’ refers to a Europa League final rather than the Champions League final says a lot about the evolution of this Manchester United side, but next Wednesday is almost as important. Just got to put up with 90 more minutes of dross beforehand, unfortunately.

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