United entertain Southampton on Saturday, the final game of 2017, and one which the hosts really need to emerge victorious from if they wish to retain 2nd place in the Premier League table going into 2018. The Red Devils have carelessly dropped four points from our previous two league fixtures, at Leicester City and at home to Burnley on Boxing Day, when only a late opportunist strike from substitute Jesse Lingard prevented Jose Mourinho’s men from suffering a defeat to the Clarets.
The biggest talking point from those two drawn games was the inability of the United rearguard to adequately defend balls into our penalty area, with an injured Chris Smalling unable to prevent Harry Maguire grabbing a last-second equaliser for the Foxes last Saturday, whilst a calamity of disorganisation allowed Ashley Barnes to smash Burnley into an early lead in front of the Stretford End last time out, both goals stemming from balls that should have been decisively dealt with by United players before they reached the opponents’ men. I’d like to think that Jose Mourinho has had his defensive coaches working with the players in the last few days to address this worrying development, because you can be sure Southampton will try to load balls into the likes of Maya Yoshida and Marco Gabbiadini this weekend, especially from dead-ball situations.
The Saints come into the game in poor form, having been thrashed 5-2 by a rampant Tottenham Hotspur team at Wembley on Boxing Day, for whom Harry Kane famously grabbed both a hat-trick and the Premier League scoring record for a calendar year. However, the warning for United is in the “2” part of that scoreline… whilst the Saints were ruthlessly picked off by Kane at one end, it’s fair to say they gave Hugo Lloris a few nervy moments at the other, and we will do well to keep close tabs on the likes of Dusan Tadic and Nathan Redmond on counter-attacks.
With that in mind, here is my team selection for this game: (4-2-3-1)
GK: David de Gea – David had the very strange sensation of picking the ball out of his net from a superbly struck free-kick by Burnley’s Steven Defour that he simply couldn’t get to; it is not often that our keeper is totally beaten by a strike from range, but that’s how good Defour’s technique was. Hopefully de Gea will have little to do this weekend.
RB: Ashley Young – assuming that Antonio Valencia remains on the injured list with his hamstring problem, Young can show his versatility yet again by slotting in almost seamlessly at right-back, and his crossing ability is one of our main weapons against opponents. He was unfortunate to give away the free-kick to Burnley that Defour converted in style, but Ashley remains a very useful player to have around.
LB: Luke Shaw – Shaw remains one of the favourites to leave the Club next month, and I simply can’t see why that should be the case. The lad is making good progress, at last, in returning from the serious leg-break he suffered the season before last, and looks as able as any full-back in the Premier League. I think Jose would be making a huge mistake in showing him the door, and I have no hesitation in selecting him again at left-back.
CBs: Victor Lindelof & Phil Jones – Eric Bailly and Chris Smalling are injured right now, and Marcos Rojo had a bit of a nightmare showing against Burnley, giving away the free-kick that the opening goal was scored from, and generally playing poorly before getting ‘hooked’ at half-time. With Bailly out long-term, I’d be delighted to see these two strike up an effective partnership at the heart of the defence. They will be happy to know that Charlie Austin is currently suspended for Southampton, but will need to be alert to the pace & trickery of Shane Long and constant threat of Marco Gabbiadini.
CMs: Paul Pogba & Nemanja Matic – both are totally indispensable within this United team, both for defensive protection and knitting the play together. It was more than frustrating to see Pogba playing so deep against Burnley, so that we got none of the benefits of his ability to be a game-changer around the opposition penalty area, and I’d ask him to push forward a lot more in this game, dragging the Southampton midfield back onto their own defensive line. We need more goal threat from our star player.
RM: Juan Mata – the little man was quietly effective against Burnley, and again it saddens me to hear rumours of his potential departure from the Club next summer; yes, he doesn’t have any pace, but his vision and touch are huge benefits to the side when going forward, and unless a younger, faster player with similar footballing skills is arriving to replace him, Juan would be a big loss to United right now.
AM (C): Jesse Lingard – Jesse rescued a point for us against the Clarets with two very well-taken goals, and you’d hope that would be more than good enough to see him return to the starting line-up to face the Saints. His non-stop action and ‘heart on the sleeve’ enthusiasm rubs off on the others around him, and on current form, he is quickly making himself ‘undroppable’. He will, again, pose a real danger to Fraser Forster’s hopes of a clean sheet.
LM: Marcus Rashford – the young man has suffered a dip in form recently, for perhaps the first time in his career to date, but the best way to get over that is to get yourself out in the thick of the action again and keep doing what you did to make a name for yourself in the first place… I’ve no concerns about Marcus, he has ability in spade-loads.
CF: Romelu Lukaku – anyone in any doubt as to who is the lead striker at United had that answered for them against Burnley. Whilst Lukaku was quiet and made a hash of the one half-chance he got in the 2nd half, Zlatan Ibrahimović looked every one of his 36 years and is clearly nowhere near up to the pace of Premier League football yet, and the worry is that he may never return to the level we seen from him early last season. Lukaku needs far more constant and consistent service if we are to see him return to the red-hot scoring form of August and September, but there is no doubting his ability to put the ball in the net.
BENCH: Romero, Martial, Rojo, Blind, Herrera, Ibrahimović, Mkhitaryan.
As I’ve already stated, the dropped points from the previous two Premier League fixtures almost make this game a ‘must win’ if we want to retain our position behind Manchester City in the league table. As well as that, a convincing win would lift the spirits of everyone at the Club as we approach the New Year and a difficult trip to face a rejuvenated Everton side, now under Sam Allardyce, at Goodison Park.
Southampton have been poor for a number of weeks, and really should be ‘sent home packing’ by United, but they pushed us hard in the return fixture at St. Mary’s back in September, when only an instinctive close-range finish from Romelu Lukaku separated the sides after 90 minutes, and need to be treated with respect. They have a number of excellent technical players such as Northern Ireland skipper Steven Davis and set-piece specialist James Ward-Prowse amongst their squad, and are sure to spend some of the £75 million they are about to receive from Liverpool for Dutch centre-back Virgil van Dijk on a couple of very decent replacements. Whether manager Mauricio Pellegrino is still around to be the one to spend that money remains to be seen, with rumblings of discontent amongst the South Coast club’s fan-base. Hopefully United can add to their grumbles with a commanding home win on Saturday.