Stephens shines as compact Southampton deny moribund Manchester United

Alan O’Brien 

Bereft of confidence, and showered in sarcastic cheers on departure, Henrikh Mkhitaryan lasted only 65 minutes here. Hung out to dry, on his first Premier League start since November 5, the Armenian’s Old Trafford career looks totally unsalvageable.

MUNSOU

Defeat to Chelsea, that fateful November day, cost the languid Mkhitaryan his place in José Mourinho’s side. Gifting N’Golo Kanté the freedom of Stamford Bridge, one week after grabbing forty in the company of Harry Winks, was hardly the hottest idea the 28-year-old ever had. Particularly with a manager, in Mourinho, who arguably prizes dedication to defence above all else.

Grasping the opportunity afforded by Mkhitaryan’s subsequent holiday, the homegrown Jesse Lingard has certainly made his mark at number-10. The late-bloomer was rewarded here, for a Boxing Day brace against Burnley, with a start in Mkhitaryan’s favoured position.

To the left

As such, the Armenian was fielded on the left-flank, to which Manchester United funneled a whopping 49% of their attacks. From there, Mkhitaryan conspired with fellow cold-shoulderee Luke Shaw to make Mauricio Pellegrino’s life very easy indeed.

Both delivered a plethora of woeful final-balls, many of which were blocked at source. James Ward-Prowse finished the game with eight blocked crosses under his belt, five of which emanated from Shaw’s left-boot.

Ward-Prowse’s industry was admirable, ensuring that inexperienced right-back Jack Stephens could stick close to his centre-backs. This extra penalty-area body helped Southampton to block an impressive seven of United’s 15 shots. Stephens was the prime mover, in this regard, with three.

Man of the match against Arsenal in early-December, Stephens belied his lack of game-time with another mature performance here. It is exceedingly hard to believe that the 23-year-old was making only his 26th Premier League start. Cedric Soares, Euro 2016 winner with Portugal, need not rush back from injury.

Chances

Only Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg outshone Stephens, nullifying Paul Pogba, and exemplifying the collective Saints application that was so lacking against Tottenham on Tuesday. Not only did the Dane top both the tackles and interceptions charts, he also out-passed every other outfield player. Impressive, given his side’s 45% share of the football.

Limited by his Danish counterpart, Pogba’s pinpoint switches-of-play did at least shine a chink of light on a dull, and plodding, United attack. Two of United’s three big first-half chances were instigated by the Frenchman’s diagonals. One saw Romelu Lukaku waste Juan Mata’s right-wing cross. And, for the other, it was Lingard’s turn to spurn the only decent cross Mkhitaryan provided from his unfamiliar surroundings.

United’s third golden chance also stemmed from a right-wing cross, suggesting that Mourinho targeted the wrong auxiliary full-back. With both Ryan Bertrand and Matt Targett injured, Sam McQueen returned for his 6th Premier League start, looking uncomfortable whenever tested. Sofiane Boufal appeared unlikely to offer Ward-Prowse levels of protection either. The flighty Moroccan allowed the Ashley Young cross that Marcus Rashford headed well wide.

Boufal did threaten United’s makeshift defence, however. Aping Juan Mata, the former Lille winger drifted dangerously toward the opposite flank, creating overloads. So arrived the Saints’ best open-play chance of the half. Boufal’s pull-back, from a Dusan Tadic through-pass, forced David de Gea to deny Ward-Prowse.

Two-on-two

Shorn of the likes of Chris Smalling, Eric Bailly, and Antonio Valencia, United’s back-line was regularly pierced in this manner. Southampton’s two-striker system, that should have seen off Arsenal this month, greatly perplexed both Victor Lindelof and Phil Jones. The former, predictably, was bullied by Shane Long’s physicality. While the latter looked uncomfortable stepping out to Tadic, performing the job both Pogba and Nemanja Matic are paid to do.

Jones did execute a last-man tackle to deny Long — from another Tadic through-ball — in the 22nd minute. But this only served to underline how close to the edge United’s offside line was truly standing. Young, still a positional work-in-progress, also played Boufal onside prior to the Moroccan’s aforementioned pull-back.

The defence of set-pieces too, again, proved difficult for Mourinho’s back-four. Wesley Hoedt wasted arguably the game’s best chance from a typically impeccable Ward-Prowse corner.

Southampton’s defensive-line also squeezed high throughout the first-half, producing a small effective playing-area, and a scrappy spectacle. When employing a 4-4-2, compactness from back-to-front is key. Pellegrino, without a win in seven, dared not offer up the space between the lines afforded to Tottenham. Space that United granted even more generously in the second-half.

Second-half

With Matic leaden-footed, and Pogba typically irresponsible, Mourinho’s side were fortunate not to concede. Long, without a goal since the Jurassic period, was denied by de Gea’s feet. The Spaniard has executed over 180% of the saves expected of him this season, bailing out the sickness ahead. Tadic’s freedom between the lines, to feed Ward-Prowse’s near-fatal low cross, was the diagnosis.

As Mata’s leftward drifts developed into permanent residency late on, the pendulum of momentum again swung in United’s favour. But Pellegrino made a wily change to negate this development, replacing Tadic with Mario Lemina. 4-4-2 made way for 4-5-1.

Mata still found pockets, however, twice taking in Matic passes on the left of Southampton’s penalty-area, as the game reached its conclusion. Fortunately for the Saints, their centre-backs came up trumps. Hoedt and Maya Yoshida produced two more big blocks to deny Lingard and substitute Anthony Martial respectively.

Conclusion

Post-match, Mourinho unsurprisingly donned his deflection cap again, deriding referee Craig Pawson for not penalising a borderline handball call. Transparent efforts to mask his own failings will, no doubt, convince a large swathe of his cult-like red-shirted followers.

But this observer is not for turning. United were ponderous and wasteful in the final-third here again, a farcical embarrassment when held up to Pep Guardiola’s juego de posicion light. Forget the third-season syndrome. With the first half of his second barely in the books, the writing is already on the wall for Mourinho. Perhaps Mkhitaryan should hang around a little longer yet.

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