The endlessly changing nightmare of Manchester United’s injury list goes on, this time hammering the wing-backs. Rafael, Ashley Young and Luis Antonio Valencia are all out, with Luke Shaw regarded as a slight doubt, which may force Louis van Gaal to switch to a back four, as he did in the second half of the FA Cup win over Yeovil on Sunday. Marouane Fellaini and Marcos Rojo could both return from a fractured rib and thigh strain respectively, although neither is likely to do so, while Daley Blind is back in training after his knee injury and, while it’s improbable that he could last a full game, he may have some part to play.
Southampton could have Nathaniel Clyne back at right-back after his ankle problems, but Jack Cork and Jay Rodriguez are still out while Sadio Mane has a calf strain – although he would have been missing at the African Cup of Nations anyway.
United won 2-1 when the sides met at St Mary’s a month ago, but the scoreline tells nothing like the full story. That was a game in which United had only three shots – their lowest tally since Opta began recording such things in 2003 – and Paddy McNair was so spooked that he had to be taken off before half-time.
Even Van Gaal afterwards didn’t seem minded to contest Gary Neville’s assertion that United “got away with murder”. He took umbrage at Neville’s “pub team” comment, but admitted that United’s distribution had been poor, something in part brought about by the quality and intensity of Southampton’s pressing. United can’t rely on the goalkeeping of David De Gea and the finishing of Robin van Persie to bail them out again.
Van Gaal’s preference has been for a back three, his only move away from that coming when his hand was forced by injuries. It may be a similar story on Sunday, given the absence of anybody who could obviously fill in at right wing-back. That probably means the back four returns, with Chris Smalling used at right-back, and the re-adoption of a diamond shape in midfield.
That would almost certainly mean Michael Carrick being used as the holder although Blind could play there if he’s fit – flanked by Rooney and with Fellaini or Ander Herrera, with Juan Mata operating behind Radamel Falcao and Van Persie. The problem with a return to the diamond is that it does effectively surrender the flanks to Southampton’s full-backs, Clyne and Ryan Bertrand, both of whom are naturally attacking anyway.
ELJERO ELIA OR SHANE LONG?
Southampton have completed the loan signing of the Dutch winger Eljero Elia and it seems that either he or Shane Long will operate on the left at Old Trafford, taking the place of Mane. Smalling has played regularly at full-back in the past, but it’s easy to imagine that, as he readjusts to the role, he could struggle to deal with the pace of either – assuming, that is, that United play a back four; if Van Gaal does find a way to play the back three, whoever operates on the Southampton left will also have a defensive job to do.
SPACE FOR MATA
Arguably Southampton’s greatest strength this season has been Victor Wanyama, dominating at the back of midfield alongside either Moragn Schneiderlin or Steven Davis. Both could theoretically play at Old Trafford, with Davis in a more advanced central role, meaning Dusan Tadic shifting to the flank and trying to exploit any confusing at full-back resulting from a probable change of shape.
That control of the back of midfield is one of the main reasons Southampton’s defensive record is so good – only 15 goals conceded in 20 games – and it means Juan Mata may struggle to find the avenues on which he can be so effective.
United have tightened up a lot at the back recently, letting in only eight goals in their last 12, which given Southampton’s record would make under 2.5 goals at 1.86 tempting were it not for the upheaval in personnel. Given Southampton are unbeaten in four league games and Manchester United have drawn three of their past four, the 4.75 available on Southampton to win appears generous.
It is true that those three United draws all came away from home and that they won their last five in a row at home, but given their renewed injury problems and the difficulties Southampton caused them at St Mary’s, there seems value in Southampton +0.5 on the Asian lines at 2.08.
Read more from Football Expert Jonathan Wilson