MANCHESTER UNITED’S EFL Cup final showdown with Southampton throws up an intriguing tactical encounter.
But there are a couple of things Saints might have to look at before kick-off if they want to lift their first major trophy since 1976.
First up, they must close the gaps between centre-halves Jack Stephens and Maya Yoshida or they could be in big trouble.
If you look at their average positions in the recent Premier League match against West Ham (Pitch Map A), when Saints lost 3-1, there is an alarming space between No 3 Yoshida and No 24 Stephens.
Andy Carroll took full advantage of that for West Ham. His equaliser came from a ball straight through the middle and bang, it was 1-1.
So if they are high and far apart, it will create loads of space for Paul Pogba, Juan Mata, Marcus Rashford or Anthony Martial to run into.
Saints’ Oriol Romeu does a great job as a defensive midfielder — but he can’t plug the gaps if Stephens and Yoshida are too wide.
Second, one of United’s best players this season has been that bundle of non-stop energy Antonio Valencia.
He has been outstanding,fill- ing the right side of the pitch both as a full-back and winger, getting up and down.
Valencia (No 25) is a winger converted to a full-back, so his instincts are to attack — as you can see from Pitch Map B. It shows his average position in United’s last league match against Watford.
He is beyond the halfway line and much higher than his fellow full-back on the other side.
His high position is partly down to his instincts but also because whoever has been playing in front of him — Mata, Henrikh Mkhitaryan — tends to tuck into midfield, leaving space free for him to get into.
His attacking is a strength for United but it can also be a weakness Saints could look to exploit.
Southampton’s new striker, Manolo Gabbiadini (No 20), loves to play on the centre-half’s shoulder, so he could spin into that space created by Valencia’s tendency to bomb on.
Dusan Tadic is a clever player, too, so he may spot the space and use it to Southampton’s advantage.
Nathan Redmond (No 22) may be tasked with tracking Valencia — but if he can escape that duty momentarily he could exploit the space, given his frightening pace.
New Southampton hitman Manolo Gabbiadini can pose United problems[/caption]
One tactic Southampton might not use is the one they employed in the second leg against Liverpool when they won 1-0 at Anfield.
Their positions on Map C shows how narrow they were with six players down the spine.
Southampton were desperate to funnel Liverpool out wide.
They were happy for them to put crosses into the box, backing themselves to beat Adam Lallana, Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino and Daniel Sturridge in the air.
Although they are both former clubs of mine, as a Manchester lad, growing up a United fan, I’d love to see them win.
I played close to 100 times for Southampton and just a few for the Reds, but once a fan and all that.
And it’s hard not to think they will win on current form.
The way boss Jose Mourinho has treated every competition with respect has been brilliant.
And they are consistently getting better, week in, week out, off the back of it.
I can’t lose — if United don’t win, it would be great to see Saints end their wait for a cup.