Southampton 1 – 2 Manchester United
Van Persie 12′, 71′, Pelle 31′
A poor performance, a great result. Sound familiar? If winning games in this manner is part of the plan for Louis Van Gaal, then Manchester United fans might want to start looking up ways to deal with the nerves. The Dutchman’s side may have moved into the third Champions League spot, claiming their fifth victory, but to say they made a meal of it would be an understatement.
A goal in each half from Robin van Persie was enough to see off Ronald Koeman’s side, but United rode their luck in a manner similar to their performance at the Emirates, only worse. The first half was dreadful from United, the second an average at best. Nevertheless, like United so often did under Ferguson, they played badly and won. That, it used to be said, is the mark of champions, even if the title remains distant.
Southampton were excellent for such long periods, but if anything was lacking, it was the killer touch. With twenty minutes to go Wayne Rooney’s freekick, a deep in-swinger to Southampton’s far post, lacked nothing of the sort. It was lost by both whoever was supposed to pick up Robin van Persie and Fraser Forster; Van Persie kept his eye on it and steered it in from point blank range. It was desperately undeserved on the balance of play, but Southampton would have rued their lack of an end product up until then.
It is a credit to Southampton’s extraordinary fitness and work rate that they were able to press United so aggressively, and in such a well-structured manner, that United were simply never allowed to settle on the ball. The pressure gave the home side a vice-like grip on United’s game that sent various blue shirts into fits of panic for much of the game. When United were able to string a succession of passes together, Southampton’s tight central pack meant that things mostly went through Ashley Young down the left flank, with end result of a disappointing in-swinging cross so often the outcome. Juan Mata was virtually anonymous for 85 minutes, unable to support what must have been an exasperated Wayne Rooney whose industry for so long went unrewarded in the face if his teammates’ struggles.
For sixty minutes here and more, United were completely outclassed by home team that was infinitely more organised. United gave the ball away time and time and again to the extent that with half and hour to go, you could count the number of attacking moves United had put together on the fingers of one hand.
Southampton had started well, harrying hard and allowing United little time on the ball. But it was a moment of stupidity that cost them after 12 minutes. Jose Fonte seemed oblivious to Robin van Persie when he casually knocked the ball back to his goalkeeper, but the Dutchman saw it coming along with 30,000 at St Mary’s, and pounced. The finish was perfectly weighted, rolled between the Forster’s legs.
United were forced into change after 17 minutes after Chris Smalling limped off, appearing to strain a groin after an inocuous looking jump. Jonny Evans, who himself was only returning from a lengthy spell in the sidelines, was immediately thrown into the mix. The injury bug continues to gnaw away at Louis van Gaal’s defence with seemingly no let-up in sight.
An early Christmas came at the 30 minute mark for Southampton. United’s dreadfully sloppy passing reached its nadir with Maroune Fellaini, who gifted the ball to Steven Davis in the middle of the park. The youngster’s driving run ended with the ball falling to Shane Long on the right, whose cross was deflected and eventually stuffed in by Graziano Pelle. It was no more than Untied deserved for their profligacy.
United’s defending was reminiscent of the opening 35 minute shambles against Arsenal. Paddy McNair in particular was a deer in the headlights of Southampton’s aggressive pressing and Marcos Rojo’s mental slips seem to come in batches. By the time the game had barely reached the 40 minute mark, van Gaal had seen enough, hauling off McNair, replacing him with Herrera and moving Carrick at the back.
It was unfortunate for McNair that his last act was a panicked giveaway to Shane Long moments before being withdrawn. With the exception of Rooney and Van Persie who rarely saw the ball, United were desperately poor throughout the park and virtually unrecognisable from the team who had confidently ploughed through their previous four games.
But they got the job done. Southampton’s frustration was epitomised at the death by an appalling challenge from Sadio Mane, who was lucky not to see red; his victim van Persie was lucky to be uninjured. Luck, as it turned out, played a rather large part in this victory, as well as resilience. It is unlikely that a team with a greater instinct than Southampton will let them get away with performances like this.