A trip to Southampton can feel like a high-stakes game of roulette these days. Arguably no other side in the Premier League press with the fervour and intensity of the Saints, but get through that and there might be joy to be had.
Ralph Hassenhutl’s side have been dominant in successive Premier League wins at home against West Brom, Everton and Newcastle, but in the St Mary’s fixture before that they were torn apart by Tottenham, losing 5-2 as Harry Kane and Son Heung-min tormented them on the break.
If Southampton’s press, led from the front in an intense 4-4-2, works then it could feel suffocating, but if you’re good enough to get through there are rewards to be had, especially if there is pace in your attack.
So for Manchester United on Sunday it might be Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford who have joy from wide positions, with Bruno Fernandes and Edinson Cavani sending them through from slightly deeper roles, but United’s true key men could be Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof.
Saints do lose an edge from their press without Danny Ings, one of the best forwards in the Premier League for pressuring central defenders, but they will still put the pressure on, especially as United’s central defenders haven’t always looked comfortable with the ball at their feet.
Maguire’s pass completion rate in the Premier League this season is 87.2% and his short pass completion rate, which is passes between five and 15 yards, is 87.9%. Lindelof has a pass completion rate of 91.4%, while his short pass completion rate is 95.9%.
That suggests Maguire could be the target for Southampton’s press. The England centre-back can be good on the ball and excelled in such a role for the Three Lions in the 2018 World Cup, but at times at United he has looked vulnerable in possession.
United noticeably increased their attempts to play out from the back when the 2019/20 season resumed in June. Teams who play out from the confines of their own penalty box can find it difficult to stick to those principles in full stadiums, when fans are watching behind their fingers and panic quickly spreads from the stands to the pitch.
One of the elements of empty stadiums is that that factor disappears and teams can play out from the back without supporters urging them to get it forward, with the conditions more like a training session than a competitive game.
United didn’t always look comfortable when they tried to play out and were punished when Southampton drew 2-2 at Old Trafford in July. For the opening goal De Gea’s short pass arrived at Pogba when he was under pressure and Ings dispossessed him 25 yards from his own goal. A few seconds later Stuart Armstrong was opening the scoring.
So United have been forewarned as to how Southampton will put the pressure on De Gea, Maguire and Lindelof, as well as the midfielders dropping deep to collect the ball, whoever they may be in Solskjaer’s system.
The benefits for United is that Southampton’s high line can be exposed by Martial and Rashford, but to get to that position they might have to take a few risks, and it might be a nervy watch from those United fans sat in front of their sofas.