Manchester United travel down to the south coast full of confidence to take on Southampton in the Premier League on Sunday.
After a bumpy start to the season, United have recorded three consecutive wins in all competitions to reduce the pressure on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
The important 3-1 win over Everton on 7 November has been followed by a 1-0 victory over West Brom and a 4-1 thrashing of Istanbul Basaksehir after the international break.
Solskjaer’s side will be hopeful of making that four straight wins on Sunday afternoon, with St Mary’s a favourite venue, having played host to five wins and four draws for United since Saints’ last home league win against the Red Devils in August 2003.
While they’ve struggled at Old Trafford this season, United are on a roll away from home, with seven straight away league wins under their belt.
All this points to a fifth Premier League win of the campaign for United, but that is before you consider their opposition.
Southampton won’t be a pushover for United. Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side are unbeaten in seven Premier League games and have won five of those to reach fifth place.
Hasenhuttl is approaching his two-year anniversary as Saints boss and now has his team playing exactly how he wants.
Saints are very well settled, with a core of players tasked with carrying out his demands, which have been clearly defined in a document called ‘The Southampton Playbook’ that he put together during the first coronavirus lockdown.
The Austrian manager lines his side up in a 4-2-2-2 formation, with each position given specific pressing roles out of possession.
Since the calamitous 5-2 defeat by Tottenham on 20 September, Southampton have clicked into gear as an automated pressing machine, with each component perfectly in tune.
United will have to be sharp on the ball this weekend, because Southampton will not allow them time on the ball.
Top goalscorer Danny Ings may be out injured, but Che Adams and Theo Walcott have formed a promising partnership up front for Saints. While their chief objective will be to find the back of David de Gea’s net, they will also aim to make life as difficult as possible for United’s defenders when they are in possession.
Harry Maguire likes to step up into midfield with the ball to add impetus into United’s play and change the point of attack, while Victor Lindelof can often be seen attempting expansive long-range passes out to the flanks.
They will not be given many opportunities to do so at St Mary’s. Southampton’s energetic forwards will be ready to pounce on any mistakes and ensure United don’t register just a third clean sheet in the league this season.
Fernandes holds the key
If the game goes to Hasenhuttl’s plan Southampton’s press can be suffocating. However, if United are brave and precise with the ball the tactic can be nullified.
The key for the visiting team will be how often they can feed the ball to their most creative player.
Bruno Fernandes has six goals and three assists in the Premier League so far this season and he will be the man given the freedom to drift into pockets of space behind Saints’ high press.
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Ole Gunnar Solskjaer may have missed out on Jadon Sancho in the summer, but he still made some big moves in the transfer market with Donny van de Beek, Alex Telles and Edinson Cavani all arriving.
But their start to the season has been a mixed bag, with a home defeat to Crystal Palace and a 6-1 thrashing by Spurs at one end of the scale, and a tremendous 2-1 win over PSG in Paris at the other.
The question now is whether they can find the right balance?
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If Maguire, Lindelof and holding midfielders Fred and Nemanja Matic can play fast, vertical passes into the Portuguese playmaker then United can transition quickly from defence to attack and exploit Southampton’s positioning through their biggest strength of counter-attacking.
Saints fullbacks Ryan Bertrand and Kyle Walker-Peters like to push on down the flanks and if Saints lose possession, Fernandes can invite Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial to run into the space they have vacated.
It won’t be easy, but if Solskjaer and his side can bypass the press, then they can make it eight successive away wins in the Premier League for the first time in the club’s history.
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