The dark cloud which has hung ominously over Old Trafford since the opening day of the 2018-19 season has shown little sign of disappearing and after last week’s drab goalless draw against Crystal Palace, expectations have plummeted among United supporters. The win against Young Boys may have helped a little, but it was hardly scintillating stuff.
The Red Devils are seventh in the Premier League, 15 behind table-topping arch-rivals Manchester City and seven behind fourth-placed Chelsea. Pressure mounts on José Mourinho with each passing game.
Against a struggling Palace side last Saturday the same old problems persisted, as the combination of a lack of urgency in attack and laziness in midfield left United looking second best and ultimately lucky to emerge with a point.
Mourinho’s best performing player on the day was Victor Lindelof, who continued his recent improvement by leading by example at the back, while also being a key figure off the ball. His defensive partner Chris Smalling also produced a steady display, while the stats show that Ashley Young and Matteo Darmian stuck to their jobs vigilantly when faced with an onslaught of Palace pressure.
The real issues lay further up the pitch, as Nemanja Matic was left isolated in the transition with Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard neglecting their defensive duties. The Frenchman was second only to Young in terms of driving the team forward in attack, but Lingard had an all-around shocker and picked the wrong option on the rare occasions that he did find himself in a pocket of space.
Juan Mata has been a key creative figure in recent weeks for United, but he was largely unable to affect the game, while Anthony Martial spurned the host’s two best opportunities on an otherwise quiet afternoon out on the left-hand side.
Mourinho’s men had 60% of possession and managed five shots on target to the Eagles’ two, but the visitors looked far more threatening going forward, as both Patrick Van Arnholt and Andros Townsend missed gilt-edged chances to steal the three points.
The most worrying aspect of the game for United was the lumbering, lethargic showing of Romelu Lukaku, who finished the game as the team’s worst performing player, even below substitutes Marouane Fellaini and Marcus Rashford. The Belgian managed just 20 touches throughout the contest in total, which was 31 fewer than the player with the next fewest touches for the home side: Anthony Martial.
The likelihood of Lukaku adding to his tally of four league goals over the next few weeks looks slim, as he continues to cut an isolated figure up front, while also failing to hold the ball up effectively as a target man.
Positivity could reap rewards against Saints’ leaky defence
Mourinho is fast running out of time to prove he is the right man to turn the club’s fortunes around and anything less than an away win on Saturday will put him in a more precarious position than ever.
After their trip to St Mary’s, United face crunch games against Arsenal, Fulham and Liverpool, meaning they cannot afford to drop any more points in pursuit of a top-four finish.
However, they were also overwhelming favourites to get back on track with a win against Palace, which spectacularly failed to materialise. Although Southampton will be similarly unfancied, United’s lack of bite in the final third and penchant for shipping goals suggests they are no longer a sure thing in any 90-minute contest, no matter who the opposition may be.
Mark Hughes will be relishing the prospect of causing an upset against his former club. Although his side are in the bottom three with just one win to their name and 24 goals conceded, there are one or two players United will have to watch out for.
The former has the quality to be a huge threat if afforded the space Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend were for Palace against the Red Devils last weekend, while the latter is a pass master capable of dictating the pace of the game from the middle of the park.
Southampton’s main issue this year has been scoring goals, but they did manage to carve out plenty of chances during their 3-2 defeat at Fulham last time out, with Stuart Armstrong grabbing both goals.
Hughes will set his team up to sit deep, soak up pressure and counter quickly. There may also be periods of the game where the Saints can gain a foothold in the possession stakes, which could make for a frustrating afternoon for Mourinho and his players.
The Portuguese boss might have no choice but to be more forward-thinking in his approach with so much on the line and, as Fulham showed last week, Southampton are vulnerable at the back and susceptible to pace in behind.
Will the dark clouds of doom finally begin to lift from Old Trafford this weekend? Or will the misery continue? Much will hinge on a positive Mourinho team selection and whether or not he allows his most dangerous players to express themselves freely. Don’t count on either.