Manchester United will welcome Southampton, the surprise package of the season so far, to Old Trafford for a 3:00pm kick-off this Saturday. I refer to Southampton as a surprise package, but with a squad like the one they have, perhaps more people should have predicted the Saints to do so well.
No matter what esteem you held Southampton in before the start of the season, you would never have expected them to be 4 points clear of Manchester United after 7 games. This is partly due to their own brilliant form, but also to a generally under performing Manchester United squad. There have been some painful results for Manchester United fans this season. Defeat to West Brom at home, a narrow loss to Liverpool away and worst of all a sensational 4 – 1 hammering at the hands of Manchester City. Saying that, Manchester United have had a difficult start to the season. Indeed they have faced Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City, and even Swansea away was not the simplest of fixtures either. However, that doesn’t change the fact that each of their victories have come against teams currently in the bottom six.
On a more positive note they come into this match on the back of a win against Sunderland, with the young Belgian/Albanian/Serbian/English Januzaj starring with two well taken goals. He is a ray of light among a very stormy season for United, and only time will tell whether he is as good as the media would make you believe. If he is capable of playing weekly as he did in that match then he will make a big impact on the Premier League, and given that he can sign a pre-contract with another club in January, many clubs will be keeping tabs on him.
Southampton’s form was mixed during the first four games: 1 win, 1 defeat and 2 draws. However three victories in a row, which is 4 from 7 in total, means that they are now sitting in fourth in the table, and two of those wins came against Liverpool (away!) and Swansea. Another incredible achievement is the fact that they have only conceded 2 goals in those 7 matches, making the Southampton defence the best in the Premier League. Every member of that defence has contributed considerably to that, but it is Artur Boruc who has arguably been the star. The Southampton goalkeeper will be coming up against Robin Van Persie this week and, as such, he is likely to have a large say in the result of this one.
24 different individuals have been in the starting line up for United at one time or another, which is more than any other team in the division. Adnan Januzaj is one of them and he is only the second player to score twice on his debut for United (Ruud van Nistelrooy was the other).
United have not lost back-to-back home games since 2002, while the Saints have not won 2 successive away games since 2001.
As has already been written, Southampton have conceded only 2 goals so far this season; this time last year they had conceded 20. At this time, it is 7 hours and 52 minutes since a player has put the ball into Boruc’s net.
Picking Robin Van Persie as my key player for United would usually be hailed as not a very brave or interesting pick on my behalf. However the Dutchman has, when penalties are excluded, failed to score in 14 of his last 18 games, and is currently on a 5-game barren run. When coming up against what is statistically the strongest defence in the Premier League, key will be the form of the star striker (as it generally is for the whole of the season) so how Van Persie performs in this one will be vital. In many ways, he has been selected by virtue of how he has played for the last two seasons and with the knowledge of what he can be.
The fact of the matter is that he has not been at his best so far for United in 2013/14. He is level with Wayne Rooney as the club’s top goals scorer on 3, but he is ahead of the England international in shots with 22 taken (4 more). Part and parcel to Van Persie’s success is his ability to shoot. A lot. His shooting accuracy is currently 39% but even at his peak it hasn’t been much higher than this. He relies on his ability to create his own chances, leading to him taking to more shots, which further causes him to score more goals. His technical ability helps too of course, and if Southampton don’t prepare well for him he will make them pay.
The talents of Southampton’s defence have already been praised. We know it’s good, it will likely continue to be strong against United. Whether Southampton can capitalise on this is what will matter. For this reason I pick new striker Osvaldo as the key man for the Saints. With 16 goals for Roma in Serie A last season he was an astute acquisition for Pocchetino. He has scored 1 goal since his arrival at Southampton, and with a shooting accuracy of 63% he will be hoping to get back into scoring form at Old Trafford. More than just scoring though, he works very hard for the team. Part of the managers’ philosophy is to close the opponents down quickly and high up the pitch, and Osvaldo follows through that instruction well. Indeed he has won the ball 21 times for Southampton, 11 times in the middle third and 6 times in the attacking third. With his work rate and shooting accuracy combined he will surely be a dangerous weapon at Southampton’s disposal.
If indeed he does miss this one, Rafael would be Manchester United’s most felt absentee, but he may be able to feature. Ferdinand will be another one to face a late fitness test, while Cleverley was injured whilst on international duty.
According to Southampton’s official twitter account, Pochettino was “surprised” by reports that Boruc had picked up an injury and said that he had been training normally. Via the same space, it was also confirmed that Luke Shaw has recovered from the illness that saw him miss the last game and will be back for this one. As such, there are no injury worries for the Saints.
It may be Manchester United at Old Trafford, but don’t expect this to be an easy victory for them. In fact Southampton have a very real chance of picking up the win, going by the form and results of both teams this season, let alone the draw.
I’m going for it: Southampton to win 2 – 1