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United travelled down to the south coast to renew a rivalry with Southampton that has produced some epic battles over the years. Southampton were yet to win a game or register a point this season whilst United lost their opening away game at Everton. This time around there’d not be a grey kit in sight but United and Ferguson still had surprises in store.
De Gea dropped
One feature of David de Gea’s first season at United was that despite being first choice, he wasn’t always selected. In Anders Lindegaard, United have a very competent number two who, in a style reminiscent of Howard and Carroll, finds himself rotated into the starting line up after de Gea makes an error. Last week against Fulham, de Gea was singled out for being at fault for their second goal. He did indeed come for a ball he shouldn’t have and although he was fouled, he never appeared to look like getting close. It was a poor decision but didn’t feel like one that should see him dropped; for in that game and at Everton, he’d arguably saved United from further embarrassment.
Yet, once again, Ferguson decided to play tinkerman and changed his goalkeeper:
“I think young David made a mistake last week. He knows it. With the form he’s been in, he’s been making some fantastic saves, but one error like that could have cost us the game. It’s just a learning process for him and he’ll be back in a couple of weeks’ time.”
It’s no dig against Lindegaard – in his own right he’s a good goalkeeper and also happened to have a great game for the U21s midweek. However it seemed immensely harsh for de Gea to be dropped and certainly an unpopular decision among fans on Twitter at the time. As the game would go, it would be unfair to think that Lindegaard should have done better on either Southampton goal but his kicking, particularly in the first half was not good enough – too many were played flat to opponents or just out of play.
First choice defence looks rusty
You’d have to go back to mid January in 2011 to find the last time that Rafael, Ferdinand, Vidic and Evra started a game together in the league. Arguably our first choice back four and yet it’s been so long since they last played. So much so, that David de Gea has never even had the chance to competitively play behind it.
In many different ways, as individuals and a unit, they looked rusty. The defence, the foundations of any good team, was not up to scratch. Both centre backs looked like it had been a while since they’d played as simple things like timing headers were not as good as expected. Rio’s second half improved but without being too harsh on Vidic, he very much looks like someone ‘finding’ his way back after a long time out. Both fullbacks were in their own ways disappointing too. Neither are tall and so one could have hoped they’d have taken up better positions (and not slipped) for the two Southampton goals.
Our back four looked vulnerable and if I was a fan of another team, I’d have been encouraged. The flip side is that the two weeks off now allow for fitness levels to improve and Jones may even join Evans in being fit enough for consideration by the time the Wigan game comes around.
Persistence with the midfield three is necessary
Like the first choice defence, for many this was the midfield people wanted to see. Carrick was at last relieved of defensive duties and could partner Cleverley who’s impressed in early games. Kagawa once again took up a position just ahead of them both.
For one reason or another, none of them performed acceptably. Passes were often short or wide of their intended targets and they never had a grip on the game as Southampton’s players were quick to close them down and force them backwards. Kagawa, as ever, tried to be the spark to start moves but despite taking up good positions, he was all too often not found.
As a big fan of Carrick, it was disappointing to see him play so poorly. It was as if he’d forgotten he wasn’t a centre back and he seemed to assume he’d be afforded plenty of time on the ball. It is important though that United and Ferguson persist with this trio. Things rarely click the first time and so they need to play together a bit more as a unit in order to be comfortable together. You can be assured they won’t be allowed to play like that again.
RVP goes from hero to zero to hero
Goals aside, van Persie was more than impressive. His movement and use of the ball showed maturity whilst he lead the line superbly. Until now it’s fair to say I’ve never quite appreciated just how good he is on the ball. It seems obvious to see what Ferguson referred to when he said that United needed a bit more experience in attack.
His goals all had something different about them. The first showed off his ability to be clinical as well as an incredible first touch off his chest to place the ball perfectly at his feet for the shot. The second, a poacher’s goal, was all about being in the right place with quick reactions. The third, and the best of the bunch, was a header that needed incredible neck movement to generate enough power as well as direction to get the ball in.
His attempt at a chipped penalty was of course brainless. On replays, not only did the goalkeeper go early, but you can see van Persie grimace as soon as he’s touched the ball, knowing he’d made the wrong decision. He told the media after the game that it was a last second decision to chip it and not something he’d planned. An odd decision that so nearly cost United points. Fortunately he was to reprieve himself in some style!
Substitutions win the game
Ever the thinker, van Persie’s post match interview was a homage to Scholes. He was quick to pay tribute to Paul who came on with thirty minutes to go and finally gave United some control of proceedings. He may be fast closing in on his 38th birthday and he may have come on against tired legs, but Paul can still boss it. Rarely did he seem to misplace a pass and more importantly he not only made the right decisions but he found space (aided by some odd Nigel Adkins subs). It’s easy to suggest that he should have started the game – there’s every chance that he may have found the pace too quick from the off, a bit like at Everton where he didn’t have the same impact. Still, it was a game-changing move by Ferguson.
Nani and Hernandez also should be praised for their cameos. Nani gave United some natural width on the left, the team needed shape – poor Danny Welbeck isn’t and never will be a left sided player. Nani played a key role in the penalty United won as well as supplying the corner for the winner. Hernandez meanwhile brought United higher up the pitch. Playing on the last man means he stretches the game and creates space for those behind him. His much criticised first touch also appeared better as his link-up play was sharp and good. He’ll feel he has a lot to prove this season but that was a very encouraging start.
If the Saints can play like that, with that intensity on a regular basis, they’ll be ok. Their problem may well be that it’s easy to get themselves ‘up’ for bigger games as shown by their poor result at home to Wigan. In Rickie Lambert they have a striker who a bit like Grant Holt last year will cause problems as something of an unknown to a lot of defences. Maybe they’ll be disappointed not to have tested Anders Lindegaard a bit more – they didn’t always convert pressure into chances.
The player who notably caught the eye was Adam Lallana. He was forever busy and never standing still. Good on the ball but better off the ball he made things tick over for Southampton and is one player who could even get an England call up some time this season if he carries on like that. Importantly, his work ethic appears good – he chased down United’s midfielders and performed an important team role. A special mention as well to Jason Puncheon who supplied a few very good crosses during the game.
It isn’t worth writing a long eulogy for it’s all been said before. Most managers are happy to get to 1,000 games across a few clubs, let alone just in the top flight of English football at the same club. It’s a truly phenomenal feat that’ll surely never be seen again given the cut-throat approach by chairmen these days. His next league game won will be his 600th – a win percentage of virtually 60% is remarkable given the period of time. Regardless of how you feel about him as a manager or a person, it’s impossible not to acknowledge this fabulous milestone.
In truth, United probably would have been lucky to get a point. Sloppy performances should be and usually is punished at the top level. The gloss of the win mustn’t deceive – this should have been a defeat and Ferguson will have hopefully dished out the infamous hairdryer treatment.
The international break may well be welcomed. Three games and maybe just an hour of good football against Fulham have yielded a flattering six points. Performances can only improve and one must hope the team will become both more ruthless and more clinical as the September arrives.
The final word must go to Ferguson, on his 1000th league game it was his substitutions that changed the game for United and ultimately turned a deserved defeat into a stunning and typical Ferugson-era late win.
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