Manchester United sealed another typical Jose Mourinho win on the Portuguese's Old Trafford debut on Friday night, easing past Southampton 2-0. Like their 3-1 win at Bournemouth five days earlier, United showed an impressive level of organisation so early into the new regime, while producing enough danger at the other end to win comfortably.
Their fluency varied when facing an established defence, and that is another reflection of Mourinho, who values transitions above elaborate moves. United often tried to counter attack here, particularly after Zlatan Ibrahimovic's opener. The opposite was true of Southampton, who dominated possession and mustered slick moves that lacked the final pass.
Claude Puel used his 4-4-2 diamond system, which featured Dusan Tadic in a free playmaker role and winger-turned-striker Nathan Redmond partnering Shane Long. Still, their expansive style couldn't prevent Ibrahimovic from scoring a penalty early in the second half.
United were now even happier to lower the tempo and strike on the break, which helped debutant Paul Pogba grow into the game as Saints ceded space. Puel pushed up his full-backs in hope of a late goal, but United stayed strong and coasted to victory.
Solid United launch counters
Considering how little time Mourinho has spent at United, the identity of his team has become strikingly clear. They are evolving into a robust and functional unit, with steel in the centre (Pogba, Ibrahimovic, Marouane Fellaini) complemented by pace out wide (Anthony Martial, Antonio Valencia, Luke Shaw). They can sit deep for longer spells, then attack quickly. If the cohesion is poor, Ibrahimovic can always provide some magic.
To some extent, the latter happened here. United had spells of plodding possession in which Wayne Rooney came too deep and Ibrahimovic looked isolated. Though early exceptions included an acrobatic Ibrahimovic volley and a Pogba effort, they hadn't produced much by the time Ibrahimovic towered above Jose Fonte, with almost no run-up, to head in Rooney's cross.
That allowed Mourinho to close up shop. United conceded no corners, one shot on target, and needed to make just 14 tackles compared to Southampton's 41. Their busiest tackler was actually Ibrahimovic, who attempted three. Their transition-based game, which led to just 43 percent possession, can be seen in the chances created graphic, where the final passes tended to go forward into space. Southampton, who operated in tighter areas, relied more on lay-offs and cut-backs.
Puel's diamond neat but inefficient
That pattern was also linked to the intricacy of Southampton's approach. Puel used a 4-4-2 diamond in which three cautious central midfielders were flanked by adventurous full-backs; up front, Tadic, Long and Redmond tried to strike up combinations.
Tadic was particularly mobile. He kept moving into the space between Shaw and Daley Blind, either receiving the ball to feet or sprinting in behind. Redmond worked the channels, while Long stayed closer to the box. At their best, the trio offered three different passing options simultaneously.
It took 15 minutes before the system got going, at which point Tadic popped up on the left to fire off target. Perhaps the finest move came on 19 minutes: Long came short and give the ball to Jordy Clasie, who then played in Redmond, who had already started his run. At the same time, Tadic had position himself inside the box, and only Redmond's overhit cross prevented a lovely goal.
Pogba licensed to shine
In recent weeks, one of the talking points surrounding Pogba's transfer has been his new role. He shone as part of a midfield trio at Juventus, but looked inhibited when put in France's central midfield duo at Euro 2016. Here he got a similarly deep role, but Mourinho granted him more freedom than Didier Deschamps tended to do.
With Fellaini staying back, Pogba was allowed to test Fraser Forster and play in Mata for Ibrahimovic's acrobatic shot early on. He was also in the box when the Swede scored the opener. When Southampton were forced forward at 2-0, Pogba was granted space to dominate even more: he once won the ball to set up a Martial chance, then fooled two opponents to start a move that saw Ibrahimovic mistime a Valencia cross.
By full-time, Pogba had completed 60 out of 72 passes -- by far the most at United -- and pulled off nine out of 14 attempted dribbles. Nobody else on the pitch completed more than three. Defensively, he recorded 14 ball recoveries; twice as many as any teammate. Considering the 23-year-old was not even fully fit, you wonder what else might be in store.
Saints full-backs lead final push
For Southampton, the 51st-minute penalty, caused when Clasie tripped Shaw, forced Puel into action. On 67 minutes, he replaced midfielder Steven Davies with striker Charlie Austin. Austin now partnered Long, with Redmond just behind and Tadic in a deeper role. The front three became narrower, while full-backs Targett and Cedric Soares were even more adventurous.
Yet the visitors were largely repelled when approaching the box. United's dominance in the centre forced the ball out wide, from where Targett and Soares swung in seven crosses in the final 23 minutes. One from Soares was nearly flicked in by Long, but most were cleared by the superb Eric Bailly. That wrapped up a first clean sheet for United, three points and an encouraging defensive display. No wonder Mourinho was pleased.