Robin van Persie’s double purloined the points despite an abject United display.
In what can only be described as an act of floodlight robbery, a shambolic Manchester United came away from St. Mary’s with a scarcely-merited 2-1 victory. They did so despite having been out-shot, out-passed, out-pressed and thoroughly outplayed by the home side, whose wastefulness in front of goal was their downfall. Two superbly taken goals by Robin van Persie, and a succession of fine saves by United’s perennial saviour David de Gea were the only true positives of an astoundingly poor display. Here we discuss the talking points from last night’s game, and as always we welcome the thoughts of both sets of supporters.
A collective hangover
Last weekend’s Christmas party, apparently arranged by captain Wayne Rooney, which pleased coach Louis van Gaal and suggested a high degree of togetherness in the squad. One could therefore have been forgiven for thinking that United’s displays would reflect that interpersonal cohesion, with the kind of smooth passing and integrated movement we hope (and expect, justifiably) to see from a team tutored in the Dutchman’s philosophy for a number of months. Whether it was the drinks or the singing, or the reversion to a three-man defensive system, the only things that seemed familiar to anyone in the first half were a) An extraordinarily disjointed defensive display from United, b) David de Gea repeatedly saving his team’s blushes, leading to a number of tweets suggesting that he be tied to a 10-year contract extension and given a lifetime supply of donuts, and c) Another defensive injury, as Chris Smalling went off with a groin tweak. The latter occurrence was especially disappointing, as Smalling’s form has been very good since returning from suspension.
It meant a return to action in very difficult circumstances for Jonny Evans (after a long injury layout). Moreover, a chastening 35 minute outing for Paddy McNair – though he retains his 100% win record in a United shirt – meant his eventual replacement by Ander Herrera. An incredible sequence ensued, with Michael Carrick having no idea where to play for thirty seconds after coming on, leading to him shouting at Ander for 20 seconds, before settling – if that’s the right word here – into his place in the back three.
It served, embarrassingly, to underline the general incomprehension of the system Van Gaal used at the World Cup, and the dreadful communication/leadership problems that continue to plague the side in the post-Ferguson era. If Van Gaal wants his players to “play with their brains” as he said in pre-season, there remains a huge amount of work to be done by both trainer-coach and players.
Ander, who’s been such a bright spark in the middle recently, could do much less to influence the side positively in the face of aggressive pressing by Southampton. After a good run of form in recent weeks, Fellaini turned in his poorest performance in some time. United’s struggles in the middle were not entirely his fault, as the base of midfield was always going to be a dangerous spot for him given his struggles on the ball; it was highly surprising to see Carrick give up that spot in the first half for the Belgian. It disrupted United’s rhythm more than anything.
Saints cause Reds discomfort, but Van Persie bedevils them again
Credit should be given where it’s due, however – while poor communication and tactical failures were big contributors to United’s poor play, Southampton took the game to their opponents and played very well. Annoyingly for Ronald Koeman, Saints’ players and fans, however, the result – a strong performance against a ‘big’ team with nothing to show from it – was another in a series of ‘Arsenal-esque’ displays they’ve had in recent weeks. Graziano Pelle, after cooling off in recent weeks (Amr Zaki style), was a menace to the defence who frequently dropped deep due to their unease, and scored the scrappy goal his perserverance deserved.
Their pressing was coordinated and vigorous – though they understandably tired near the end – and their passing was notably quicker, more accurate and vastly more penetrative than United’s. Compounding the struggles of the men dressed in ugly blue Chevrolet posters, Juan Mata’s tidy but worryingly unambitious passing was (statistically) the best of a sorry lot.
One rare bright spark was the form and function of Robin van Persie. The 31 year old Dutchman has rightly come in for much criticism this season, despite a decent scoring record. As a number of writers have noted recently, this form – largely pedestrian in running and build-up play but with a roughly one-in-two strike rate – was evident for much of David Moyes’ ill-fated reign, as his post-Fergie angst manifested itself all too visibly.
Last night, however, his overall play was miles better than we’ve seen from him this season. While the team’s overall performance was annoyingly reminiscent of that against Arsenal a few weeks ago, Van Persie’s was fortunately not a repeat performance. Where he was inert and vaguely uninterested at the Emirates, he was spritely, latching on to Fonte’s horribly over-weighted backpass to slot past the excellent Forster in the first half, nearly conjuring a curling wondergoal later in the half (rippling the side netting frustratingly). His best was to come in the second half, with a contorted, improvised left-footed karate kick to divert Rooney’s far-post free kick between Forster’s legs and into the netbag. A brilliant finish from someone with negative levels of confidence in his right foot. Van Persie often seems to do well at Southampton’s home ground – missing a penalty but scoring a hat trick regardless, early in his United career, to seal a(nother) barely deserved win.
Let’s be honest, folks. In this yuletide season, there are few more enjoyable sights in football than your team purloining three completely undeserved points from the home ground of a team that’s outplayed them but lacked the necessary ruthlessness. United pulled exactly that off, and Southampton were the unfortunate victims. Usually 5-match winning streaks are signs of improving performance, but it’s been such a weird season so far that the team’s only two away wins (Arsenal and Southampton) came from their least cohesive showings.
That said, there is a very pleasing mental toughness to Van Gaal’s United. Despite the poverty of many recent displays, there is a belief running throughout the side that is truly refreshing and reminiscent of Ferguson’s United, especially in the less-talented but bloody-minded title-winning teams of 2011 and 2013. Tougher tests await, and a variety of problems remain, but finally we can see tangible signs of progress, philosophy or no philosophy.