EFL Cup Final Tactical Preview: With the right game plan, Saints can upset the odds

Jose Mourinho will be desperate to pick up his first trophy as Man United boss
Jose Mourinho will be desperate to pick up his first trophy as Man United boss
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Ryan Baldi breaks down the tactical battles that are likely to manifest themselves in this Sunday's EFL Cup Final...

"Mourinho’s men will look to dominate the ball against the Southampton, with the work of Ander Herrera in both the attacking and defensive phases of play key to their success."

The first silverware of the season is up for grabs on Sunday as Manchester United take on Southampton in the EFL Cup final at Wembley.

The Red Devils enter the game in a rich vein of form, with a 2-1 reverse against Hull City in the League Cup semi-final second leg their only defeat in all competitions since the end of October.

Southampton, on the other hand, have been an inconsistent beast of late, with three wins and three defeats in their least six outings, as they struggle to break beyond mid-table in the Premier League.

Tactically, Jose Mourinho's plan for Sunday will likely hinge on whether Michael Carrick has sufficiently recovered from a calf injury. The 35-year-old playmaker's presence at the base of United's midfield has had an enormous bearing on their recent form, but the former England international was forced off the field 62 minutes into Wednesday's 1-0 Europa League victory over Saint-Etienne.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan was also injured in the first half of the game, but, unlike Carrick, the Armenian appears to have no prospect of returning in time for the final.

"Michael is available," Mourinho said in a press conference on Friday. "Clever, experienced. He left the pitch in the right moment so Michael is available."

If he is deemed fit enough to start, then United will likely line up in the 4-3-3 formation that they have relied upon in bigger games thanks to Carrick's ability to shield the back four and retain possession.

With Mkhitaryan out, Juan Mata is a near certainty to start on the right, with Mourinho choosing between Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford on the left wing. Both young forwards offer the ability to stretch the Saints with their pace and direct dribbling ability, while posing a goal threat when cutting inside onto their stronger right foot.

Mourinho's men will look to dominate the ball against the Southampton, with the work of Ander Herrera in both the attacking and defensive phases of play key to their success. The Spaniard, provided Carrick can start, will line up on the right of the midfield three. No United player can better his average of 76.4 passes per game this season, while his 88.1 percent pass accuracy means he is a safe pair of hands in possession.

However, Herrera's work off the ball is perhaps even more vital to United's hopes and, more specifically, Paul Pogba's influence on the game. The Frenchman is among the most gifted midfielders on the planet, and his work in advanced areas will keep Oriel Romeu occupied.

But Pogba is less cognisant of his defensive duties than his Spanish team-mate, whose average of three interceptions per game is higher than any Premier League midfielder this season.

Herrera's tenacity in one-on-one battles, ensuring United maintain possession in high areas, could see the Red Devils outgun the Saints if James Ward-Prowse, who will likely line-up opposite the former Athletic Bilbao man, is unable to up his 37% success-rate in duels.

Manager Claude Puel has taken an experimental approach to his tactics with Southampton this term, sending his side out in a 4-1-2-1-2 formation early on, and reverting to 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 recently.

It seems likely that the French coach will opt of the latter on Sunday to match up with United. Sofiane Boufal is a doubt thanks to an ankle injury, but a late fitness test could see him play a part.

The biggest absence for the South Coast side, however, will be that of towering centre-back Virgil van Dijk. Arguable the most coveted defender in England right now, the classy Dutchman's aerial prowess will be sorely missed up against 6'5" Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Van Dijk averages 4.7 successful aerial duels per game, and United could opt to play high up to the 35-year-old Swede in his absence.

Somewhat of an x-factor for the Saints is January signing Manolo Gabbiadini. The six-cap Italian international was signed from Napoli on deadline day for £15 million, and has already netted three goals in his first two games in England.

Eric Bailly will certainly start at centre-back for United but, with Phil Jones injured, Mourinho must choose between Marcos Rojo and Chris Smalling to partner the Ivory Coast international.

Neither man covered himself in glory against Blackburn Rovers in the FA Cup last weekend and, though Gabbiadini is not blessed with pace, his intelligent movement and ability to drop off the front line and link play could see him pull open up pockets of space for Southampton to exploit.

The dynamic threat of Nathan Redmond could prove key for Puel's man. The St Mary's side have averaged 54% of possession in the Premier League games this season, but they will probably have to settle for a reduced share of the ball against United.

Redmond's speed in transition will be crucial for Southampton, who would be best served looking to exploit the space vacated by the Red Devils' full-backs by breaking quickly down the flanks. As was the case in their semi-final triumph over Liverpool, the England under-21 international has the ability to be a match-winner in such scenarios.

United are 3/4 favourites to claim their fifth League Cup on Sunday, and their recent run of form makes for uncomfortable reading for Southampton fans. But the 20-time champions of England are not without their flaws; with the right game plan, the Saints could cause an upset.

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