Manchester United will look to build on last week’s 3-2 win over Fulham, by bringing more of the good and less of the bad when they travel to St. Mary’s Stadium on Sunday evening.
After picking up their first points for the new season, Sir Alex will hope his side can continue to improve after a mixed performance last weekend. A game in which two disappointing periods sandwiched a plenty of good football from the Red Devils, United will have to ensure such sloppiness does not continue to feature in their game if they hope to take out a 20th league title this season, with no shortage of teams ready to punish any complacency from Sir Alex’s men.
Southampton are certainly a team that are capable of doing just that, as their impressive performance at the Etihad against Manchester City proved on the opening game. They eventually lost the game, but their display was indicative of a team that loves the big occasion, and it doesn’t come much bigger than the visit of Manchester United. As United learned in 2009 when they visited newly promoted Burnley, it is not out of the question for a team of Southampton’s stature to defy the odds in front of a rocking home crowd.
It is a point Sir Alex will be keen to make to his players, as he looks to avoid the loss of any more points so early in the season, after the opening day defeat at the hands of Everton. The United boss will be grateful to have seen Jonny Evans make a solid return to action with the under-21s last night, and declaring himself fit for action with the first team. The return of the natural central defender will free up Michael Carrick to resume his usual duties at the heart of the United midfield, after a mixed couple of weeks as a stand in central defender, alongside United captain Nemanja Vidic, who himself is only just returning from a lengthy lay-off with injury.
Ashley Young will miss out with injury, after picking up a knock in the Fulham game, potentially allowing Nani back into the first team after being strongly linked with a move away from the club ahead of the transfer window deadline, which have since been refuted:
“In terms of injuries, it was nice of the FA to let everyone know Ashley Young is injured,” Sir Alex told ManUtd.com. ”He’s out after the injury last week. It’s not serious.
“Centre-back is our main concern at the moment. Jonny Evans played on Wednesday [against Tottenham at Under-21 level] and came through fine. He’s the strongest option we’ve got.
“Phil Jones has done some training but isn’t ready yet. Rio Ferdinand’s in the same boat. At least we have one centre-back available, which is an improvement. It allows us to put Michael Carrick back in midfield.
“Wayne’s out for four weeks. It’s nothing serious on the actual gash – it’s a bad one but it was treated carefully very quickly. We don’t expect any complications from it. I think he’ll be back in four weeks. The fact it’s a gash and not a muscle or joint injury means he can do a lot of work in the gymnasium. We’re not too bad with that.”
Rooney’s injury came despite only partaking in a short period of the game, after being dropped to the bench after his display against Everton, which Sir Alex attributed to a lack of fitness:
“Rooney wasn’t as fit [as the other players], Wayne’s said that himself. He needs a few games.
“I wanted to play Robin van Persie at Old Trafford, although I knew he wasn’t 100 per cent fit either. It was only because we lost the second goal that I was forced to leave Robin on. I’d have rather taken him off with 20 minutes to go.
“I couldn’t have started both of them and I wanted to start van Persie for his first game at Old Trafford. Wayne’s a bit behind the other players in terms of fitness. He’s not as advanced as Shinji Kagawa or the other midfield players, for example.
“It wasn’t an easy choice because I had to leave out a very good player and a player who can score you goals. His goalscoring is getting better all the time. So that’s not an easy decision, but it was done.”
The match will represent Sir Alex’s 1000th league game in league football as manager of Manchester United, an achievement that Southampton manager Nigel Adkins doesn’t believe will ever be achieved again:
“I think it is going to be a one-off when you look at it realistically.
“Demands are placed in the modern game now for someone to stay at a football club for so long.
“But if you look at the success they have had and the stability it has provided – the successful clubs probably have a consistent basis so maybe it is possible and that is the way to go.
“I had a good conversation with him a few years ago and I asked him about the longevity of management and it was ‘move with the times’ and if you surround yourself with younger people you probably act a bit younger as well. I think he is a great example of how to do things.
“I think when you go into something you have got to strive to be the best and keep improving.
“Obviously at the time you think it is a long way away and very unrealistic I suppose for a Premier League club to go and bring a young manager in.
“So the only way you are going to get there is to get a club promoted and we are delighted we have been able to do that at Southampton.”
Adkins will be pleased to have just about a full squad of players to choose from, including new signing Gaston Ramirez, the Uruguayan stirker, when selecting his side for the game against United, with the return of midfielder Jack Cork imminent as he recovers from an ankle injury he suffered in pre-season. Adkins rested almost all of his first team players for their League Cup win over Stevanage midweek, and a more familiar side should take on the Red Devils.
Another week, another game, and this week’s Premier League fixture, the last before the upcoming international break, offers United a great chance to consolidate on the good that came out of last week’s game against Fulham.
As such, I don’t think Sir Alex will change too much from the side that played at Old Trafford last week to secure the club’s first three points of the season. A welcomed return to fitness for Jonny Evans should see him slip into the centre of defence alongside Nemanja Vidic, flanked by Rafael and Patrice Evra, allowing United to field a back four of recognized defenders for the first time this season. Evans looked solid in the midweek under-21 match against Tottenham Hotspurs, but he will be going up against something of an unknown quantity should Southampton start their new signing Gaston Ramirez up front alongside Ricky Lambert, who has proven a handful for opposition defences already this season.
Evans’ return should see Carrick move back into familiar territory in the middle of the park. Anderson, Scholes and Cleverley have performed well whilst Carrick has been deputizing at the back, but the English international’s ability to control the tempo of the game will be greatly appreciated in the middle of the park, where he truly belongs. His partner could be any one of Anderson, Cleverley or Scholes, but given Cleverley’s start to the season and good form, it could just be three starts from three games for the youngster.
Ahead of them, Young’s injury will dictate at least one change from last week. Nani is a proven winger, capable of playing on either side, and after not being sold he is seemingly still in Sir Alex Ferguson’s plans. Welbeck also offers another option on the left, though not being a traditional winger, this may hurt the overall balance of the team, as he would no doubt be looking to provide a more direct threat on goal. Antonio Valencia should regain his berth on the right, whilst Shinji Kagawa’s impressive start to the season can hopefully continue in his role just behind the main striker.
With Rooney injured, Robin Van Persie seems the most likely option to play that role up front, as Sir Alex continues to try and get United’s new additions to gel with the rest of the team. Danny Welbeck offers another strong option, whilst Javier Hernandez can also do a job and pose a real threat with his great pace and knack for scoring.
Southampton have proven a tricky side already this season, playing very well at the Etihad, and United will do well to not underestimate them. David De Gea’s mistake last week will probably ensure he is completely bombarded aerially by the Saints, and with the likes of Lambert and now Ramirez, they can still prove a large goalscoring threat, even if United do dominate possession as one would expect them too.
United are still improving though, and this is certainly a game in which Sir Alex will be hoping to see it all come together for a real convincing performance, after a lackluster start to the new campaign.
Southampton – 0
Manchester United – 3