Manchester United are in a bad spell, whatever Jose Mourinho claims. The self-proclaimed ‘Special One’ is in a particularly spiky mood lately.
Southampton, though, are in a rut of their own. Their thrashing at Wembley on Boxing Day was a lowest point of their season, and Mauricio Pellegrino is under severe pressure to turn things around. As of December 27th, Saints are just two points above the bottom three. Since a three-match unbeaten run in October, they have won one match.
This pre-New-Year’s-Eve clash is terribly timed for the visitors. Well, it should be. Manchester United are traditionally a dangerous wounded animal, as is Mourinho. The trouble is, there are inklings of meltdown at Old Trafford. From calling his players ‘childish’ to hilariously bemoaning his lack of funds, Mourinho is in dangerous territory.
The superiority of Manchester City is hurting Mourinho. Their last three matches have seen them sandwich a defeat to Bristol City with draws to Leicester and Burnley. By kick-off with Southampton, United could be 15 points off Manchester City, and more importantly, will be six ahead of fifth-place Tottenham. The title is out of reach, falling out of the top four remains a realistic prospect.
Aside from his increasingly comical rants to the press, Mourinho is left with dilemmas ahead of this one. He fielded Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Romelu Lukaku from the start against Burnley. It did not go well. Does he try it again? Does he change system? Is it time to give Lukaku a rest?
I cannot answer those for you, unfortunately. What we do know, though, is that Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Jesse Lingard were excellent when they came on. Lingard is arguably United’s most important player at the moment, such is the unselfish work he does off-the-ball. The 6/1 on the England international to open the scoring is value.
United were good in the second half to come back from two down to Burnley. This was not some great brave tactic, however. There was no choice other than all-out attack. It would be a mistake to expect such front-foot, attacking football in this clash from the off. For that reason, I really like 11/10 on under 2.5 goals.
Backing that does rely on Southampton returning to defensive form of sorts. Their expected goals against are eighth best in the league, but they were a disaster at the back against Spurs. Southampton are a better side than form suggests, and they should be comfortably safe this season. This could be the match that ends their extended blip.
There’s a surprising amount on the line in this one. Another performance like the first hour against Spurs, and Pellegrino will be close to departing. Failure to win – and possibly falling to third – might just see Mourinho combust in his post-match media duties.
I saw enough in Southampton’s performance after the substitutions against Spurs to believe they can extend this torrid run for United. Mourinho claims they deserved to score more in their last few games, but their defence is vulnerable again, and the attack is dysfunctional. The 19/5 price on a draw is a very good one.
TIP: Match to be drawn 1-1 @ 8/1
*Odds subject to change - correct at time of writing*