There will have been a large section of the Manchester United fanbase who felt disappointed with the paucity of January arrivals at the club. Despite the mitigating factors of a pandemic-affected window, and the fact the mid-season market rarely offers such opportunities as last year’s one-in-a-million Bruno Fernandes deal, some United fans will still have wanted more.
Amad Diallo was the sole signing, and even his arrival from Atalanta was agreed back in October.
Yet you won’t find many who watched Diallo’s Under-23s debut — against Liverpool on Saturday — complaining about the addition of the Ivorian. Many inside the club, including Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, are excited about his development and the Norwegian himself has said in no uncertain terms that Diallo’s time is coming soon.
Whether it’s too soon to see the 18-year-old in a matchday squad, only Solskjaer can decide. It may be that the Southampton game sees him make an appearance on the bench at least.
Pogba back to the middle?
Perhaps it was an acceptance from Solskjaer that he had paid Arsenal too much respect by starting Paul Pogba in a wide role at the Emirates Stadium, beside a midfield duo comprising Scott McTominay and Fred.
Because as soon as McTominay was forced off the field with a first-half injury, Solskjaer reacted by ushering on a forward player, in Anthony Martial, and moving Pogba back into the centre.
Pogba and Fred have not been a regular partnership in the middle for United, but they worked well together away at Fulham, with the latter playing a key role in Edinson Cavani’s opener and Pogba curling home a brilliant winning goal later on.
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the duo start together against a Southampton side who can be exposed in midfield, with their 4-4-2 system. They offer the best blend of attacking and defensive skills for United right now.
Dealing with the Saints press
When you hear the names Ralph Hasenhuttl and Southampton mentioned nowadays, the first word that springs to mind is ‘press’. The Austrian has certainly turned the Saints around in the 15 months since that infamous 9-0 drubbing by Leicester.
Even despite a recent rocky patch of sorts, Southampton are a very different prospect these days, as United know all too well.
The Reds’ past two games against Southampton have been far from straightforward, a frenetic 2-2 draw at Old Trafford in the post-lockdown period last season and having to battle back from 2-0 down at St Mary’s in November.
A major tactical weakness of United’s has been overcoming the intense high pressing of teams like Southampton. To do so successfully requires courage on the ball and pinpoint passing accuracy, something which has eluded United of late.
Make no mistake, this is a big challenge and it arrives at a crucial time for United. The three points won’t come easy for Solskjaer’s men.
Cavani’s task to inspire
Cavani might be one of the few United players breathing a sigh of relief to see Southampton’s name on the fixture list. The Uruguayan was introduced on the South Coast to devastating effect earlier this season, scoring two goals to inspire a famous United comeback.
It could be that Cavani draws on that game for inspiration after an out-of-character performance at Arsenal on Saturday. It is unlike the 33-year-old to miss such glaring chances, as he did at the Emirates Stadium, but he’s too good to continue squandering opportunities.
It’s a no-brainer to start Cavani over Martial at the moment, despite those misses, and Solskjaer will be confident that the former PSG star can fire United to victory again.
At a time when nearly all United’s forward players are struggling, Cavani can provide a much-needed spark.
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Manchester United missed multiple chances to beat Arsenal on Saturday evening, drawing 0-0 at the Emirates Stadium.
Edinson Cavani and Marcus Rashford were culpable of squandering opportunities, as United now sit three points off league leaders Man City having played a game more.
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Test of the trimmed squad
It would be an overstatement to say United’s squad is now small, but they did see seven players depart in a January window where outgoings were (rightly) prioritised over incomings. It has effectively left United with a first-team group of around 23 players, still more than enough for them to cope with whatever this unique and madcap season can throw at them.
Still, it says plenty that Phil Jones has been called back in from the cold to offset Teden Mengi’s loan departure to Derby, while there is onus on rookies like Diallo, Daniel James and Brandon Williams to cover key positions.
United are fortunate that they currently have a squad with a clean bill of health, though they may be tested if injuries arrive in the coming weeks, especially with Europa League commitments kicking in soon. Solskjaer will again be asked to balance priorities and get his rotation right.
This Southampton game should see United field a full-strength side, however, given their recent dip in form in the past week.