If not for Paul Pogba, the arrival of Zlatan Ibrahimovic would have been the talking point of Manchester United’s transfer window. The legendary Swede has consistently performed in four European leagues, but there were endless doubts that he would be able to reach the same level in the Premier League. Yesterday’s game went some way to proving that his quality transcends which country he plays in.
Not only did he score a fierce header from open play, but he did so under considerable physical pressure from Southampton’s defenders. The idea that he only thrived in other leagues because defenders gave him more space is quickly fading away.
In fact, the way defenders marked him gave opportunity for his teammates. At times, the 34-year-old had two defenders closely tracking his runs, opening up space for the three players behind him to break forward into the box.
His link-up play was also superb. Even heavily marked, Ibrahimovic provided a foil for United’s midfield to create from, holding up the ball with both his physicality and his close control. From there, he was always looking to push the game towards the Saints goal.
The striker did only manage a 70% pass completion rate over the game, but that’s more indicative of the quality of Southampton’s centre halves and his perhaps overzealous attempts to play the ball forward as much as possible.
Ibrahimovic would finally flop in the Premier League? Not likely.
In more surprising news, Marouane Fellaini put in a stellar performance that might actually suggest he has a future in central midfield. Under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal, Fellaini was caught in what appears now to be a transitional period. He looked out of place in midfield, endlessly trying to play a Hollywood pass or getting caught out of position, leaving United exposed.
Against Southampton, he appeared to be a very solid partner for new record signing Paul Pogba and put in a poised and collected performance. The days of Fellaini thinking that he is Andrea Pirlo seem to be over, replaced by efficient yet effective passing and a calming presence in the heart of the pitch. The Belgian has averaged a 94% pass completion rate over both Premier League games so far, a 10% improvement over last season.
Fellaini’s defensive work really shone throughout the game. He managed four tackles and 2.5 clearances, all while breaking up Southampton’s passing options by positioning himself well.
Spectators around the world were curious as to how Fellaini would fit into Jose Mourinho’s plans, but it is becoming apparent that the 28-year-old is a different player compared to the last few seasons. He seems to have matured as a midfielder, he’s no longer trying to be an incisive playmaker because he simply wasn’t capable in that role. Instead, he’s turned into a very effective and composed holding player that will comfortably slot into United midfield without being a liability.
Southampton’s performance left much to be desired, but there were suggestions against United that Claude Puel’s 4-4-2 diamond system isn’t going to work in the modern Premier League.
The Saints started reasonably well, spreading the play effectively across the midfield and stretching United thin, allowing attackers Nathan Redmond and Shane Long to run into space look to threaten. That purple patch lasted all of 10 minutes, and when United found their shape, Southampton looked relatively toothless.
The same midfield that had started so well seemed to fracture during United’s extended spells of pressure. From that point onward, the links between Southampton’s three deeper players and no. 10 Dusan Tadic collapsed, leaving a serious gulf in the middle of the park within which the Saints offered no threat whatsoever.
They failed to both break up the play in any meaningful way and create from deep, raising serious questions as to how having such a narrow formation limits a team. New signing Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg performed well, but it seemed that he was the only central midfielder at times.
Wide play is such a fundamental part of Premier League football at the moment and the 4-4-2 diamond struggled with width throughout. Defensively, the Southampton full backs found themselves overloaded by United’s wide players at times, and were it not for Jose Fonte and the outstanding Virgil van Dijk, they could’ve been exposed quite embarrassingly.
Neither Cedric Soares or Matt Targett had any attacking dribbles in a game where they needed to adapt and put pressure on the wings.
While it is indisputable that Claude Puel will need time to induct his squad into his system and adapt to Premier League football itself, he may need to move away from his favoured 4-4-2 diamond against the league’s top teams.
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