Southampton – Manchester United: Bruno Bags Another Big Building Block For Ten Hag (0-1)
Manchester United might have turned up in the derby, but all eyes were on if they could retain their focus ahead of a midday kickoff on the south coast. The contest was a struggle, but Erik ten Hag’s nous laid the foundations for a decisive phase of pressure and the game winning goal.
Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.
Rocky roads are never too far away from the pebbly seafronts on the south coast. Southampton have reveled in many memorable nights under Ralph Hasenhüttl, whose work bears the mark of an intense Red Bull powered press. But the season is a marathon, not a sprint. Streaks of form have invariably faded, holding the club captive to the bottom half of the table in the last five years. Nevertheless, the omens were favorable ahead of the visit of a side whose trips to St. Mary’s have often been a struggle.
Manchester United have shouldered a new man with the weight of the savior complex. Erik ten Hag has left his native Dutch shores to return this outfit to the top of English football. An arduous mission lies ahead of him. Their noisy neighbors remain the standard for the elite within the Premier League, while the middle class now have the resources to compete better than ever before. A 2-1 victory in the North West derby at Old Trafford must galvanize his troops to rise to the battle each fixture presents.
Off the mark in the league, ten Hag picked the same starting eleven that won on Monday. Anthony Martial missed out due to an Achilles injury, while Cristiano Ronaldo was again a spectator from the bench. Marcus Rashford led the frontline, and Anthony Elanga flanked him as a right winger. A £70 million fee tempted Real Madrid to release Casemiro, who was in the squad. He would have to wait for his full debut for the club as Christian Eriksen and Scott McTominay operated in the double pivot.
Hasenhüttl switched from a back five to a 4-2-3-1 system away at Leicester City, leaning on a similar shape for this game. Armel Bella-Kotchap held onto his spot next to Mohammed Salisu in the heart of the back four, and Roméo Lavia kept out Oriol Romeu from central midfield. Adam Armstrong has moved to the left in this setup with a lone striker, whose duties were now in the hands of Ché Adams. Replacing Sékou Mara and bagging a brace last weekend, he wished to reward his manager’s faith.
Southampton still want to press
In his search for stability, Hasenhüttl has adopted a twist on his usual 4-4-2 block. Near the box in his third of the field, Joe Aribo dropped off into the midfield behind Adams. But if the home team wanted to engage United’s buildup higher up the pitch, usual patterns emerged in their work without the ball.
2nd minute: pressing sequence from Southampton. Adams blocks the passing lane to McTominay, so Aribo jumps to press Varane. The striker falls back diagonally, recognizes the square body shape of the central defender, and prepares to promptly shut down Martínez. Armstrong is ready to trap Tyrell Malacia, and James Ward-Prowse is higher than Lavia to generate access to the dropping Eriksen.
Aribo stayed close to McTominay in the middle of the park, and the wingers could shuttle outward to the fullbacks. So, Lisandro Martínez and Raphaël Varane shifted play between each other with lateral passes that ended up as cues to press. Aribo and Adams changed their body shapes and running angles to cover the midfielder, forcing passes out to the flank or longer into depth to escape the pressure.
Saints show promise in possession
The opening stages featured work from the home team off the ball. Only about a quarter of an hour after kickoff did Southampton begin to string together sequences in possession. Either they searched for Adams as an outlet from long balls or opted for more patient ball circulation. In the case of the second method, both members of the double pivot were deep to open passing lanes behind Rashford.
15th minute: offensive sequence from Southampton. Armstrong drops into the left halfspace, pinning Elanga. Salisu passes to Moussa Djenepo, whose deep ball evades Dalot to set away the left winger.
The fullbacks gave this quartet options on the flanks, and the front four moved inside. The halfspace positioning from the wingers and roaming from Aribo, drawing the attention of McTominay, helped find access out wide. Attacks were broader and more direct on the left. Armstrong and Djenepo were willing to use dribbles to shift the ball into the halfspace, where United’s rearguard offered openings.
On the other hand, wide overloads frequented the right edge of their offensive structure. Ward-Prowse tended to drift out to the right halfspace. He formed a 3-1 base from the back to circulate the play and gradually pushed through the channel to the edge of the box, where his deliveries towards the far post targeted runs from Adams and Armstrong. The midfielder could also try to combine with Mohamed Elyounoussi and Kyle Walker-Peters, the higher of the two fullbacks, to probe into the final third.
If patient ball circulation did not break the resistance, transitions could. Hasenhüttl’s men advanced at speed after several turnovers near the half hour mark, leading to their best chance before the break. From a corner, the ball ricocheted to Bella-Kotchap, whose cool deserted him in the six yard box.
United are growing accustomed to ten Hag’s demands
In this phase, United stuck to their 4-2-3-1 formation. A higher block where Rashford initiated the press from the front ahead of a man-to-man approach in the middle of the park bore fruit against Liverpool. Ten Hag has demanded aggression from his new squad, whose performance pleased the manager. They battled in duels to compete for second balls, giving away little concretely in front of goal. Conversely, room for improvement among the visitors on the ball prompted new instructions.
Ten Hag: "Rashford was more of the target and that is what we demanded at HT. Be more of a target and we can play off you and you say that." #mufc [MU]— RedReveal (@RedReveal) August 27, 2022
The best of an unproductive offense during the first half exploited Southampton’s left halfspace. The exemplar of this weakness was a goalmouth scramble in the 19th minute. Diogo Dalot was free to whip a cross into the penalty area, where Elanga, Bruno Fernandes, and Eriksen all failed to hit the back of the net. Ten Hag duly noted this frailty, ordering Rashford to give a link to his teammates.
Rashford is less associative as a central forward than Martial, but the adjustment worked. Elanga’s dribbles inward off the flank from the first half led to three big openings for the away team. The last of those broke the deadlock in the 55th minute. Sancho dropped between the central defenders, then found Dalot, whose cutback met its match in care courtesy of the finish of his compatriot Fernandes.
Spirited Saints stay alive
The goal did not open the floodgates for United, who lost a grip on the control they gained in the first 15 minutes of the second half. In stark contrast, ten Hag’s men could not create a single shot following the strike from Fernandes. Hasenhüttl turned to the bench for reinforcements. Mara replaced Adam Armstrong, and Elyounoussi made way for Stuart Armstrong. Spells of promise in the first half now translated to set-pieces and more episodes of chaos in the final third. The contest was not yet over.
In the absence of control through possession, the guests dug in. Casemiro entered the pitch in the 80th minute, leading to a positional reshuffle. The Brazilian stepped in next to McTominay in the double pivot. Eriksen then moved forward to support Ronaldo, while Fernandes moved to the left to shore up the flank. Though it was far from the ideal conclusion to this clash, the three points were theirs.
On another day, Southampton might have walked away with at least one point. The signs from this match suggest we will see more of the same from Hasenhüttl’s men. No longer solely reliant on the brutal intensity that their 4-2-2-2 block demands, their flexibility in shape has not compromised the pressing triggers, set-piece plays, and wing attacks that have been the cornerstone of this project. Quality comes and goes, but trust in the Alpine leader to steer the side towards mid-table safety.
Manchester United are at the start of a process with many steps. Indeed, the dominance synonymous with ten Hag’s Ajax is the product of diligent work on both sides of the ball. His new outfit’s display indicated this state of affairs. A first clean sheet in the Premier League and the second victory in a row point to their bettering organization. Contrarily, the manager stressed how his men must develop more poise with the ball, noting sparse chance creation before the break and waning control in the last half hour. But processes have to bring results. They will welcome another win at Leicester City next week.
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