Two Zlatan Ibrahimovic goals sunk Southampton on their first away trip under Claude Puel, as the 16-17 season seems to have started with a stutter rather than a flourish. George Galpin, who was at the game, gives his view on five points from the game at Old Trafford.
- The Diamond
A trip to Old Trafford is always difficult, even more so in the media-frenzied hyperbole revolving around the first home games for Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Jose Mourinho, not forgetting the return of a player that Man Utd had bought for £89m after letting him go for 100 times less; a nice example of the largesse of the Premier League at the moment.
Even so, the challenge was made that much harder with the problems that have come from the diamond formation that Claude Puel is keen to implement. In theory, forcing the home side to attack the flanks and away from a congested midfield makes some sense.
But it led to a lot of problems at both ends of the pitch. It left Matt Targett and Cedric exposed; although the academy graduate fared pretty well, his Portuguese teammate's defensive deficiencies were ruthlessly exploited by the pace and power of Anthony Martial and Luke Shaw, particularly in the last thirty minutes.
The biggest problem came in the attacking third, however. Nathan Redmond and Shane Long ended up chasing full-backs and Saints were left with no focal point to construct dangerous attacks from. The away side created chances, but not as many as their possession should have yielded and David De Gea barely broke sweat.
It is obviously too early to completely write it off, but the system doesn't seem to suit the players and Saints cannot be playing Premier League games whilst still adapting. If the results don't change, Puel will need to show that Shirley Bassey was wrong with her assertions.
- Attacking problems
Building on the former point, it seems to be that Saints do not look like scoring even with two 'strikers' in the diamond system, yet it seems silly to call Long and Redmond that at the moment because they seem to be forever out wide and ends up with Dušan Tadic practically playing as a false nine.
It is Long who seems to be struggling most in the new set-up. The Irishman will never be the best finisher or the most technically-gifted striker, but allowed to play as a striker he still managed to net ten league goals; a reasonable amount considering his lack of game-time in his preferred position u the first half of last season.
Yet under Puel he is back to chasing shadows on the touchline, away from the box where he can use his underrated heading ability. It wouldn't be so bad if Redmond or another striker was in the middle able to take advantage of Long's dirty work down the flanks, but his strike-partner ends up doing the same.
Interestingly, it is Jay Rodriguez who looks the most suited to playing as a wide-forward. The 27-year old's last two seasons have been a complete writeoff, but back in a similar position to where he flourished under Pochettino, he could become Southampton's most potent threat again once more.
Early days at #saintsfc but I don't think Long-Redmond combo is a partnership & the diamond is working yet - better 2nite in parts though— Adam Blackmore (@bigadamsport) August 19, 2016
- The Mané Replacement
Even if Rodriguez comes back to his best, there is no doubt that Saints need another attacking option. As Puel doesn't seem to play big strikers to have crosses lumped in towards them, another target-man seems to be out of the question as Charlie Austin appears to be that different option.
In that case, a player who can play any of the three attacking positions behind the striker, as well as being able to cover up-front, seems to be the order of the day. Sadio Mané is the perfect example of that kind of player, and the scouting system that found him should be able to find a like-for-like replacement for the Senegalese forward.
Mané was somewhat underappreciated at Southampton; often labelled as inconsistent, the simple fact is that he could produce a moment of match-winning magic through his searing pace and dribbling ability.
He could be frustrating but only because his ability meant that he was capable of providing that spark and creativity that, Tadic aside, seems to be lacking within the current Saints squad. A big ten days is ahead; they need to find that magic from somewhere.
GRAPHIC: Sadio Mané https://t.co/50noDDbdVg pic.twitter.com/EFuhWwEUaM— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) August 18, 2016
Despite what has been said so far, it was not all doom and gloom from the away side at Old Trafford. Up against a side far more expensively-assembled and under a lot of pressure, the fact is that an unstoppable header and questionable penalty was all that separated Claude Puel's men against Man United.
Virgil Van Dijk was once again superb even up against the world-class Ibrahimovic, whilst Targett looks to be improving with every appearance, and dealt well with both the skillful Juan Mata and physical Antonio Valencia.
But Southampton's star man was Pierre-Emile Højbjerg. After a starring role in the comeback against Watford last week, the Dane recently acquired from Bayern Munich was thrown in from the start and the £11.8m fee paid already looks like a fantastic piece of business.
Even though Morgan Schneiderlin has struggled to make an impression in Manchester, his importance to Southampton cannot be questioned. His defensive ability coupled with his physical attributes made him one of the best defensive midfielders in the league.
Although Højbjerg isn't quite so defensive, the comparisons are fairly obvious. It is incredible to think he has only just turned 21, as his mature display on one of the most difficult away trips in the league was matched by his equally-mature interview after the game, speaking in one of his second languages.
He already looks to be an asset on and off the pitch; with a similarly smart attacking recruitment, the spine of Fraser Forster, Van Dijk and the young Dane would look incredibly strong even considering the departures of the last three summers. One diamond that seems to be working better than others.
An honest, intelligent and for once in the modern game, enlightening interview - #saintsFC have a classy player pic.twitter.com/rXDgYBbXUD— Fresh Saints (@FreshSaints) August 20, 2016
- Friday Night Football
Away from the football, praise must go to the geniuses that thought that forcing Southampton fans to travel to the North West and back on a weekday, fighting the inevitable stream of traffic on the m6 and around Manchester itself during rush-hour.
Many either arrived with minutes to spare or missed kick-off, all thanks to the fact that those who made the decisions to make the game live on TV did not think of those who wanted to travel up instead of watching it on telly. Why wasn't Burnley versus Liverpool on the Friday, for example, and the Old Trafford fixture on one of the three alternative weekend slots, Sky?
The 1,100 who so travelled up can take scant consolation in the fact they did not have to bear the coverage that concentrated solely on Man Utd, as I understand it, with Southampton merely referenced as merely support to the headline act.
Fair play to shirt sponsors Virgin Media, who paid for coach travel for those who went up, but the occasion brings into perspective once again how little the matchday-going supporter is considered by those in power at the broadcasters.
It is not just a Southampton-centric moan; United's global and country-wide appeal is well-known, and it is easy to assume for example that fan groups based in Bristol or Weymouth, who often travel up to their home games by coach, were equally thankful that they had to travel on the M6 on a Friday, when it resembles less of a motorway and more of a three lane car-park.
Friday night football great idea @SkyFootball stuck in traffic on #M6 Southampton to Manchester— Paul Griffiths (@griffoe80) August 19, 2016