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Opposition Scouting: Southampton profiled ahead of crunch Premier League clash with Manchester United

At first glance, eight points from the first five games looked alright for Saints but when you drill a bit deeper and look at the fixtures we’ve had, you can’t help but feel we’ve left a few points behind.  Home games against Swansea and Watford only brought one point and two very average performances and four points on the road against Huddersfield and a Hodgson-uninspired Palace. We had the bonus of an additional home game against West Ham because of a fixture switch due to the athletics happening at their rented ground and we managed to win that with a last minute penalty, despite our best efforts to throw it away against 10 men.

Whilst the whole world was focussed on Liverpool’s underhand attempts to sign Virgil van Dijk, we got on with the summer transfer and plugged a couple of gaps in the squad and for once, didn’t lose any players that we didn’t want to lose, despite the media’s best efforts to sell Cedric Soares, Ryan Bertrand, Oriol Romeu and van Dijk for us. The incoming Wesley Hoedt gives us the height in defence that we’ve lacked since Virgil got injured (see EFL Cup Final vs United for an example of us struggling in this area) and he looks very confident on the ball. Mario Lemina gives us a strong presence in midfield to compliment Oriol Romeu and he got rave reviews from the Palace game which he completely bossed. Very predictably, every pundit around was touting him for a ‘top four’ club on the basis of one game. We are very tired and bored of all that.

In every transfer window we always seem to leave one issue outstanding and this time it’s up front. In my opinion, Southampton have a good goalkeeper, fullbacks, centre backs and defensive midfield that’s as good as most but the creativity and finishing is lacking – hence our somewhat pathetic goal return. It’s not rocket science – we sold Graziano Pellé and Sadio Mané in the same transfer window and didn’t adequately replace them. We don’t have enough goals in the team and players in the attacking midfield positions (Redmond, Tadic, Boufal, Davis, Ward-Prowse) who you would want to be contributing eight to ten goals a season, will more than likely get about three each.

Claude Puel never got to grips with that last season and eventually paid for it with losing his job. On the face of it, finishing eighth and getting to the aforementioned EFL Cup Final seems like a decent season for us but the football, especially at home was dire and I can’t imagine many will miss him. A small burst of goals by Charlie Austin at the start of the season and a similar burst in the middle by Manolo Gabbiadini was all that separated the Saints from the real strugglers. The new manager Mauricio Pellegrino seems to have made Southampton attack-minded and we’ve shown flashes this season but it’s going to take a while.

By strengthening the back of the team, it’s hoped that the solid foundation will free the shackles further forward a little bit. So far this season, it’s been a case of one step forward followed by one back. We played well (most of the game) against West Ham, then average at Huddersfield and then we were absolutely pathetic against Watford before sorting it out against Palace. A win against United would certainly get everyone onside with what the new manager is doing.

The Manager

After the dull style of play under Claude Puel and post-match interviews that had you switching off after 30 seconds, the arrival of Mauricio Pellegrino has been the proverbial breath of fresh air.  He dealt with all the van Dijk shambles in a strong manner and seems a very focussed and intense individual. He has a reputation for tactical flexibility from his time in Spain but he’s not trying to change too much too soon. He did try a 3-4-3 formation in the League Cup at home to Wolves but a combination of lack of preparation time and reserve players meant that it was a disaster as we pathetically limped out 2-0.

I think most fans would settle for Pellegrino masterminding a similar-placed finish to last year in the league but there has to be some more entertainment and goals, especially in home games.  At times we have looked to press high at home with mixed results but at the time of writing, we don’t appear to have committed to one style or another. Our away form has held up pretty well since Koeman jumped ship but the goals have certainly dried up at home. Under Koeman and Pochettino before him, we regularly got points against the big boys (as you know J) but last year we mostly just rocked up with a Plan A of defending deep and a Plan B of doing nothing different when we went behind. Of course, you can’t go gung-ho against the likes of United but you at least have to give them something to think about defensively. We actually got the balance right in the EFL Cup Final but on that day, our defending cost us.

Ones to Watch

The Oriol Romeu – Mario Lemina axis in midfield will be key. If the two of them can get a grip in there and not allow United to boss possession then we’ll have a decent chance. Steven Davis is also one to watch because he knits everything together and whilst you’re watching him, hopefully, others will find space and do damage.

If you’re talking about forward going players then Nathan Redmond is the closest we have to an exciting player but at the moment his final ball or shot is often wildly inaccurate. Shane Long will be key in this game as centre-backs hate playing against him with his pace and tenacity. He’s as inconsistent as you like though, unplayable at his best but he tackles himself at his worst.

Manolo Gabbiadini is a great finisher and makes intelligent runs but too often this season we’ve been unable to get enough service to him so he’s likely to be a sub, having been dropped for the Palace game. Sofiane Boufal, who will be a substitute at best, is a player with unbelievable skill levels but seemingly no idea of how to get any practical use out of it.

Predicted Starting XI

However – I feel that Pellegrino is building up to playing with three centre-backs so if he decides that Virgil van Dijk is fit enough to start then I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s something like:

Match Prediction

I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ll get something out of the game. If Lemina and Romeu can win the midfield against Matic and Herrera or whoever and we can get at United’s defence then it could be a very good day. I don’t see us getting blown away like Everton were at United in the last few minutes last week. The opening goal will be key. Realistic Prediction – If we go ahead then I’ll say 1-1 but if United take the lead then it’ll be a 2-0 win for United and our poor record against United at St. Mary’s will continue.

Written by Glen de la Cour

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