Perhaps not the most entertaining game in the world, but certainly interesting and involving some pretty football in what was a fairly standard tactical battle.
With Nigel Adkins setting Southampton up in a 4-4-2 diamond and Sir Alex Ferguson arranging his team in a 4-3-1-2, the width had to come from the full-backs while, with so many in midfield, the emphasis was on possession football.
The main difference between the two teams in the first half was that Southampton’s full-backs made much better use of their space, whether it was hitting diagonal balls from deep or attacking the byline. John O’Shea was getting into good positions down the right, but as attacking isn’t his strong point he was reluctant to run at or get behind the Southampton defence, instead opting to play shorter passes infield.
On the opposite side, Fabio had a poor game, but it wasn’t really his fault. Although getting into good positions and offering a directness that was missing on the other flank, because he’s right-footed, he would have to turn inside, where he was rarely met with anyone to lay off to. When he did, such as when Michael Owen popped up in the first half, it worked, but more often than not he was isolated and forced into turning back to run down a blind alley.
He had some issues defensively too. With no direct opponent, his main job was dealing with the deep runs of Danny Butterfield and helping out his defence beside him. However, since Southampton were able to move the ball from the left flank to right quickly, Butterfield was often picking up the ball in huge amounts of space and by the time Fabio had closed him down he had already sent in a cross or pass, making him arguably the most productive full-back. Ferguson could have possibly seperated Fabio from the rest of the defence, pushing him higher to make him a more direct opponent for Butterfield, but that would have made it easier for Southampton to stretch the United defence.
Lee Barnard and Rickie Lambert were causing enough problems for United as it was. Both were fluid, happy to move to the channels, drop deeper to give a short option or act as target men, opening up large amounts of space for Southampton. This can be seen in their goal, where Lambert moves wide, dragging Jonny Evans away from Chris Smalling, flicks the ball on for Richard Chaplow to move into the space and score.
It was a deserved goal fro Southampton, who had controlled the game against better opposition with some progressive football. They tended to press high up the pitch, which early on caused some minor issues with the defence dropping off, wary of the threat on Javier Hernandez in behind them, opening up more space for Michael Owen between the lines, but the longer the game went on the more confident they got and they compressed this space well, forcing Owen deeper and deeper in search of the ball. Even when Owen had picked up the ball in that area, there was little he could do – with the lack of threats out wide, Southampton’s defence were able to play very narrow, squeezing the gaps he had to slot a ball through.
Since Lambert and Barnard where happy to drop deeper and Dan Harding equally so coming inside, Southampton outnumbered United in the centre, making it easier to dominate in possession. It also helped they had some better players: Darren Gibson isn’t good enough for United and, for a former playmaker, Anderson isn’t a very good passer, while Alex Chamberlain showed why everyone has been raving about him – the 17 year-old has the usual skills of a wunderkind, but also an amazing awareness of time and space that players don’t usually develop until later in their careers; the closest comparison I can make at the moment is Mesut Ozil.
After an initial energetic burst after half-time, Southampton tended to put less pressure on the ball, forcing United to play through them, and, as things stood, it probably would have worked.
Ferguson switched things up, bringing on Ryan Giggs and Nani for Anderson and Gibson, changing to a 4-4-2 with Giggs centre, Gabriel Obertan wide right and Nani on the left. United’s equalising goal came via a wide cross from Obertan that deflected into Owen’s path, then the winner came from a misplaced pass, perhaps brought on by the added pressure heaped onto the Southampton defence in possession now that none of them were now free, each having a direct opponent.
Now in charge, United’s wingers kept back Butterfield and Harding, while Owen dropped much deeper, pretty much acting as another midfielder – as well as adding another man to congest the area, it also added some legs alongside the aging Paul Scholes and Giggs. With a simple tactical change, Ferguson completely changed the course of the game and ensured Southampton couldn’t find a way back into it.
It was an impressive performance by Southampton, but it also pointed out the pros and cons of the 4-4-2 diamond: it lends itself well to an easy on the eye short passing style, however the use of wingers can easily nullify it by keeping the full-backs back, thus ensuring their play is narrow.