Focus: Why Martial and Memphis hold the keys to Saints success for Man United

The duo have the potential to unlock what could be a balanced and dour match, writes Alex Keble...

Louis van Gaal has preached patience to expectant Manchester United fans after Anthony Martial’s goalscoring debut, but Wayne Rooney’s hamstring injury has thrust the youngster into an important role at Old Trafford. Two tactically conservative managers will likely produce a contest defined by sideways passing and carefully shimmying defensive shapes, and as such an explosive Martial cameo is the most likely source of a breakthrough.

The idealistic obsession behind Van Gaal’s patient possession approach has led to a creative stagnancy at Old Trafford, where the piercing runs and high-tempo movement required to create space in the final third are nowhere to be seen. United have made the second-most passes in the league this season, but only the 13th-most key passes; keep a tight defensive shape, and nullifying their threat can be relatively simple. 

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Same for Saints

Southampton are more direct and varied in their approach, but a creative block has seen Ronald Koeman’s side revert to conservative tactics that, in terms of cautious and static shape, closely resembles the problem in Manchester. To illustrate this point, both teams are in the top four clubs for interceptions made, and both are in the bottom four clubs for successful dribbles.

The most viable route to goal for United is through Martial and Memphis Depay on United’s left. Depay’s speed and incisive movement – coupled with Juan Mata’s propensity to drift over to the left – have made United attack relentlessly down that flank (43%, highest in league). Their main opponent this weekend will be Cedric Soares, the right-back who joined from Sporting Lisbon in the summer.

Soares has adapted comfortably to Premier League football (2.6 tackles, 2.6 interceptions per match) but is yet to face a world-class opponent; Southampton’s three successive clean sheets have been against relegation candidates, with five goals conceded against Everton and Spurs. United fans will be hopeful Depay and Martial can combine to form a new dynamic partnership up front. 

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