Manchester United vs. Southampton: Issues and Decisions That Will Shape EPL Game
The January transfer window is now open and the outcome of the Red Devils' next few matches could determine if Louis van Gaal dives into the market or waits until next summer.
Injuries continue to blight United's season but the squad is slowly but surely returning to health with the reintroductions of Angel Di Maria and Daley Blind.
Here, we take a look at the main issues that will dictate the outcome of this match and predict LvG's tactics:
Van Gaal Sticking with 3-5-2
It appears that Louis van Gaal has settled on 3-5-2 to take his United team through most the season with the coach refusing to deviate away from the tactic in recent weeks, even setting up with the formation in the FA Cup against minnows Yeovil Town.
But it is worth highlighting LvG now has a few more options up his sleeve—which should see United's bench significantly strengthen.
The Dutchman's biggest question marks still reside in his defence with Luke Shaw and Rafael both coming off with injuries in the recent cup game.
Shaw is expected to start against his old club, per Jamie Jackson of The Guardian, but Rafael's involvement is at greater risk.
Tom Sheen of the Independent reported the Brazilian underwent surgery for a broken cheek bone but will return to training on Friday—meaning he could feature with the aid of a face mask.
The returns of Daley Blind and Angel Di Maria also mean Van Gaal can shuffle the pack in a dynamic manner he has previously been unable to—with Wayne Rooney possibly relieved of his midfield duties on this rare occasion.
Time to Partner Wayne Rooney and Radamel Falcao
When you have a set of world-class strikers, the conundrum is always going to be how to fit them all in.
In recent times, we have seen Wayne Rooney drop into a midfield role he is more than capable of playing but it is fair to say he is a much better striker than a box-to-box entity.
The game against Southampton gives LvG the opportunity to pair up his captain with Colombian superstar Radamel Falcao and see if the couple can find a deadly chemistry as a unit.
Robin van Persie missed out on United's win at Yeovil after being rested and it will not harm him to begin this match on the bench after clocking up many starts this term—he deserves his own personalized version of a winter break.
Falcao needs to continue in the starting XI and there are signs that he is adjusting to life in the Premier League.
But United must find a way of optimising the player's deadly talents—and a partnership with Rooney could be the key to unlocking the best from the No. 9.
Daley Blind Return to See Michael Carrick Marshal Defence
Daley Blind looks set to be involved for Manchester United against Southampton, with the Dutch international having fully trained for the past two weeks, per Mark Ogden of The Telegraph.
Blind might be more likely to be introduced from the bench but if he does start, his selection will allow Van Gaal to play Michael Carrick in defence to solidify his shaky-looking back three.
Carrick has been in excellent form since his own return from injury and his presence in a 5-3-2—in a deeper position—will strengthen United considerably.
Marcos Rojo may also be available for selection, per Samuel Luckhurst of The Manchester Evening News, further increasing the experience in the Red Devils' defence.
Blind will bring his metronomic approach to United's midfield and allow Angel Di Maria to break from deep.
Right Wing-Back Concerns for LvG
The possible short-term absence of Rafael, coupled with the recent injuries to Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young, mean Louis van Gaal has a difficult selection at right wing-back for Sunday's match.
The lack of a progressive right-sided player could see LvG revert to a flat back-four but Phil Jones is an acceptable temporary starting option.
Jones has played right-back many times in his career and would offer solid coverage, allowing United's forward-thinking attackers to play with freedom.
Jones has suffered with a multitude of injuries during his time at Old Trafford and if he is going to kick-on and become the player many felt he would materialise into, he must start playing more regularly and avoid the treatment room.
Right-back is not Jones' future but he will deputise with credibility against Southampton.
Evans Must Play Right Side of Defence If Selected
It is safe to say Jonny Evans has had a frightful few weeks in a United shirt, with the player hitting new lows in his performance value against Stoke City.
There is a high probability Paddy McNair will start ahead of Evans for the game against Southampton—but if Marcos Rojo does return, there will be a chance for the Northern Irishman to start on the right side of defence, his favoured position.
Evans has been playing to the left of centre and it has sapped his confidence—he looks like he is tactically learning the game all over again in this role.
But we should see the best of Evans on the right, and in unison with Michael Carrick and Rojo—the triple protective unit sounds very solid indeed.
Like Jones, Evans needs to start more games concurrently and find his best form. Further failures will only lead to his premature departure from United.