Weekend Debrief: Concerning signs at St Mary’s and Old Trafford

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IN a brand new column, tactical football boff Chris Bland (@blandc_1996) reviews the weekend, picking out a series of themes he believes we can exploit in future weeks. 

Weekend Debrief: 23rd September 2019

Manchester United’s lack of final-third threat

Manchester United are now nine league games without a win away, and the pressure is starting to build on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Letting Romelu Lukaku leave in the summer without an adequate replacement is looking like a huge mistake, as an injury crisis adds to their attacking woes.

However, it is a tactical issue that has been evident since the early part of the season that continues to rear its head, worsened further by Paul Pogba’s recent fitness issues. In games where United are expected to dominate the ball and break teams down, there is a distinct lack of creativity and tempo, as they appear very predictable.

Juan Mata has struggled behind the striker in recent weeks, whilst an injury to Anthony Martial has heaped pressure on Marcus Rashford to provide the goals.

In central midfield, Solksjaer is still trying to find the balance. Nemanja Matic and Scott McTominay are very similar and don’t offer threat on the same level Pogba does going forward.

United looked to push McTominay further forward in the second half against West Ham, and whilst this helped to create chances, it was reactionary in a game where they should’ve been looking to be on the front foot, whilst it also forced the Scot into a role he’s less comfortable in.

It is worth noting that from their opening six league games, United’s Expected Goals (XG) output from open play is only 5.56, whereas adding in set pieces adds another 1.41 and penalties 3.04. This highlights the lack of creativity from open play, and is an area Solksjaer desperately needs to solve, particularly against compact defences.

These tactical and injury worries are coinciding with a poor run of form for United, and their next three league games will go a long way to deciding Solskjaer’s future. The home game against Arsenal could actually play into their hands, allowing them to counter attack like they did against Chelsea on the opening day.

However, they could still be without Rashford and Martial, which would potentially see either Dan James or Mason Greenwood down the middle.

A trip to struggling Newcastle awaits the following weekend, and in a game requiring the players to break down a compact defence, it could push the pressure on Solksjaer to huge levels ahead of a game against Liverpool.

If the Red Devils are winless in the next two, the dreaded international break awaits Solksjaer, where he could see the axe fall. He is priced at 4/1 by SkyBet to be out the job by the turn of year, and if results don’t start to improve, this price will start to fall quickly.

Lukaku suiting Conte’s system at Inter

Inter Milan look well placed to challenge a transitional Juventus for the Serie A title, and their win against AC in the derby further reinforced this on Saturday night.

A tactical masterclass from Antonio Conte helped brush aside a poor Milan side, who’s only bright spark was Rafael Leao. He will be worth watching in the goalscoring markets in the following few games after looking bright on his first start for the club, with the young Portuguese netting eight in 24 for Lille last season.

Nevertheless, it is in particular the performances and goals of Lukaku that are standing out, as he is perfect for Conte’s system, showing why the Italian chased the Belgian’s signature for so many years.

Opting to play 3-5-2, Inter have been reliant on crosses into the box, and Lukaku’s third of the season showcased this. His ability to bully centre halves in Serie A has also stood out, whilst Inter have also looked to utilise his pace on quick counter attacks when ahead in games.

Building up promising striking partnerships with both Matteo Politano and Lautaro Martinez, goals should continue to flow as they head into a busy period of games. A game against on Sampdoria on Saturday particularly stands out, whilst he is currently priced at 9/2 (Bet365) in the Top Goalscorer charts, and is definitely worth a look.

Southampton’s worries

Southampton went down to a 3-1 defeat on Friday at home to a counter-attacking Bournemouth side, who were able to make the most of Saints’ defensive problems.

Heading into the game with four points in two games, the underlying statistics for Southampton didn’t make pretty reading, with Angus Gunn putting in two big performances to help them secure the points.
An xG against of 1.88 and 1.90 in those pair of fixtures had flattered Saints defensively, and Bournemouth were finally able to capitalise in these defensive worries.

The narrow formation that Ralph Hasenhuttl has opted for in the last games has helped get the most out of Sofiane Boufal going forward, but has left them exposed down the wings.

Although in Jan Bednarek and Jannik Vestergaard they have two defenders very strong in the air to deal with crosses, averaging 3.20 and 3.50 aerials won per-game, they are very susceptible to quick attackers, showcased by Josh King’s performance on Friday.

Also aware of Callum Wilson’s pace over the top, they left a lot of space in front of the back four, which Harry Wilson drifted into causing problems for Cedric Soares, and he was able to get on the scoresheet as a result. The full backs were also left exposed by Boufal and Nathan Redmond’s lack of tracking back, allowing Bournemouth to create a number of 2v1 situations out wide, which ultimately contributed to Bournemouth’s second goal.

Partner this with a lack of goals going forward and Southampton will need to improve otherwise they’ll be looking over their shoulders. Summer signing Che Adams is still without a goal in six, and in looking for goals they further expose the leaky defence.

An xG of 2.18 (including a penalty) on Friday is promising for chances created, but further reinforces the lack of output up front, which has seen them only score six times this season.

A tough run of fixtures awaits Southampton, with Tottenham, Chelsea, Wolves, Leicester, Man City, Everton and Arsenal their next seven games. Priced at 18/1 (SkyBet) to be Next Manager Sacked, Hasenhuttl is one to keep an eye on, whilst a bad run of form over these could see their relegation odds shorten from 6/1 (William Hill).

Best Bets

Premier League – Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to not be Manchester United by 2020 (4/1 SkyBet)

Serie A – Romelu Lukaku to be Top Goalscorer (9/2 Bet365)

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