Southampton 1-2 Manchester United: Ferguson’s switch back to a system with width turns game

January 30, 2011

The starting line-ups

Manchester United yet again came back from an awful first half display to take the win.

Nigel Adkins was without key playmaker Adam Lallana, so went for a fluid 4-3-1-2 / 4-3-3 system.

Sir Alex Ferguson made numerous changes, and he also lined up with a 4-3-1-2.

Whilst not wishing to overlook Southampton’s fine first half performance, it was Sir Alex Ferguson’s strange decision to go with that shape that was the key factor in letting the home side dominate the first half. United have switched between 4-4-2 and 4-5-1 seamlessly in recent years, but here looked completely uncomfortable, starved of any width or true creativity.

Strange United shape

In the age of squad rotation, Ferguson probably selected the XI players he wanted to give playing time to, and then considered a formation later. However, even if he had wanted to use the eleven players that started the match, he still could have used a 4-4-2 system, with Gabriel Obertan on the wing (rather than as a forward) and either Anderson or Darron Gibson playing a narrowish wide role. Neither would have been entirely comfortable there, but it surely would have meant United were more comfortable as a whole.

One of the men who was least comfortable in the 4-3-1-2 was Paul Scholes, despite the fact he wasn’t playing an entirely different role from the one he usually plays. However, he was United’s most naturally creative player on the pitch, and from that deep-lying midfield role, he loves hitting long, diagonal passes to the flanks. When United had no-one on the flanks, Scholes was unable to influence the game and United consequently played poorly.

Southampton on top

Of course, with the two sides playing broadly similar systems, both had the same basic tasks. Southampton were the better side in the first half, so what were they doing better?

The key was in the full-back areas. Southampton’s front three (the two strikers and Guly Do Prado) worked as a unit to shut down United’s full-backs, with the strikers moving wide and being given the responsibility of occupying a centre-back and a full-back each. Consequently, Fabio da Silva and John O’Shea got forward little. In stark contrast, United’s forward trio stayed very central, meaning that both Danny Butterfield and Dan Harding got forward to influence the play higher up the pitch.

There was also more energy in midfield. Richard Chaplow supported the forwards (and eventually broke through to score the goal) whilst Alex Chamberlain charged infield from the left of the pitch, and often scampered into dangerous positions unchecked.

Owen deep

Michael Owen being used as a trequartista was the most surprising aspect of United’s shape, but he was not the main reason for their first half performance – he linked play well and was one of the brighter players on the pitch. His goal (admittedly, after he’d been moved forward as a second striker) came after he dropped deep and sent an excellent ball out to the right flank.

As noted a year ago on ZM, Owen is not longer the clinical finisher he once was, nor does he possess the lightning pace that he depended on in his younger days. However, he has adapted his game reasonably well to become more than a simple poacher, and whilst it’s unlikely to see him filling that role for United on a regular basis, the remainder of his career might be better served in a relatively deep position.

After Ferguson's changes on 58 minutes


The introduction of Nani and Ryan Giggs after an hour meant United had width and pace, and the turnaround seemed likely as soon as the changes were made. Equally, Southampton’s attack-minded system played into United’s hands after the switch – their full-backs received no support in dealing with United’s wingers, and simply couldn’t compete with the trickery they were up against. A system with two banks of four from Adkins may have dealt better with this new threat.

Southampton’s advantage was now in the centre of the pitch, but Giggs and Scholes controlled possession between them, and United were comfortable in that zone. The lack of fight from Southampton at 1-2 down can partly be put down to fitness levels, but there was also a clear difference in class when United switched to their more natural system, further emphasising that the first half display was more about Ferguson getting things wrong, rather than Adkins getting things right.


Even the most ardent member of the anti-tactics brigade would have to concede that this turnaround was inspired by Ferguson’s change in formation. United went from narrow to wide and used their new-found wingers to attack Southampton down the flanks. They only played well for ten minutes, but it was enough to put them into the fifth round.

Also, a word on Hernandez – as acknowledged by Ferguson in a post-match interview, Owen is likely to get fewer chances in the first team because of the Mexican. He has a very handy habit of scoring important goals – almost all of his strikes this season have been winners or openers. The frequent comparison for Hernandez has been Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – baby-faced, low profile when he signed, instant impact, good finisher – but Hernandez is also very similar to Owen at a similar age. Hernandez was the fastest player at the World Cup last summer, for example. His goal here was remarkably similar to Owen’s famous last minute strike against Manchester City last season – movement from a central area away from the ball towards the left to receive a pass from Ryan Giggs, one touch and a finish into the far corner.

Tags: , , , , , , ,