A fifth win in a row and the momentum is building. United haven’t played well in recent weeks but they’ve got the job done, albeit with a fair share of fortune. The game at St Mary’s mirrored the tie at the Emirates a couple of weeks ago in many ways, with the Reds all at sea and fortunate not to be out of touch within the first half an hour.
Nevertheless, as against Arsenal, United grew into the game, with Van Persie clinical and improving, Ashley Young again proving his worth and David de Gea looking more and more like a world class goalkeeper.
The fact that United only had 3 attempts on goal, their lowest since stats began, is a clear indication of perhaps just how fortunate they were to come away with the 3 points. When you add to that the fact that their goals game from a defensive error and a set piece, Southampton can certainly feel hard done by.
In the end, Robin van Persie was clinical where Shane Long wasn’t; here are five things we learned from the narrow victory at St Mary’s.
1) Under Pressure?
It was obvious for all watching that United put in a very poor display with passing almost laughable at times. In fact, some periods were so inexplicable that the Reds drew a comparison with a Pub team at full time from their former captain.
The passing was very poor, yes, but the problems emanated from what has actually been a long-standing issue at United with regards to technical ability and composure on the ball. Struggling under pressure against a team pressing the ball high up the pitch is regrettably nothing new for the Reds.
The inability to cope with a high forward press against Barcelona in two Champions’ League finals, against Athletic Bilbao in the Europa League and against a wealth of other opponents for a number of years is concerning. It is, of course, an area that Van Gaal is demonstrably addressing, with a clear emphasis on playing from the back and passing the ball at a high tempo.
Nevertheless, it was noticeable against the Saints that too many were dwelling in possession and circulation of possession needs to increase in tempo if the Reds are going to perform better and give away less chances at the back. Against a more ruthless side with better quality than Southampton, the result would unquestionably have been different.
2) Ruthless Van Gaal
Managers at big clubs get paid to make big decisions, some grow into the role and relish the pressure, whilst others have the inclination to fall back into the shadows. Indeed, the contrast in this regard could not be more vivid than when considering David Moyes’ ill-fated tenure against that of the man currently in the throne.
It was an infamous moment in a post-match interview when the Scot explained that he did not take a struggling Van Persie off for fear of fan backlash. Conversely, despite numerous calls to be dropped and criticism of the Dutch striker, his manager stuck by him with unwavering resilience. Moreover, Paddy McNair, who has enjoyed a promising start to his United career was hauled off mid-way through the first half.
Harsh on a young player, perhaps, but it was the ruthless move of a manager at the highest level solely intent on winning. In truth, it may have been the kindest move for a promising academy talent who was clearly struggling, and McNair will undoubtedly learn from the experience. Nevertheless, with players fighting for their spot and Radamel Falcao still consigned to the bench, it’s clear that the United manager has confidence in his beliefs and will do what it takes.
3) Winning Ugly
Five wins in a row is never a bad thing, particularly when considering the inconsistency which has beset the club since Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure. Against Southampton, as against Arsenal and Stoke in recent weeks, the Reds rode their luck and won ugly.
There is a certain irony to the fact that fans rejoiced at Van Gaal’s appointment for the fluid, attractive style of play that he would bring, supposedly in stark contrast to his rigid predecessor. Of late, however, there is no doubt that United have failed to enthral and have certainly presented a more functional than fluid front.
The Old Trafford outfit arguably played better under Moyes than in the last few games but, crucially, came away with no points to show for it. Maybe it’s luck, maybe it’s design, maybe it’s a manager’s aura and winning mentality (it’s probably a blend of all three) but United have now begun to build the most dreaded of words; ‘momentum’, and they’ve done so winning ugly.
4) Robin’s Return
Robin van Persie has come in for a lot of criticism of late, and quite frankly it has been justified. Nevertheless, against the Saints United’s Dutch maestro proved his worth and showed signs that his form may be returning.
It was not just the two well taken goals, the former Arsenal man’s all round game was much improved on performances of late, with more touches on the ball, more effective hold up play and a greater work rate glaringly evident.
Many (including this author) were calling for James Wilson to start ahead of Van Persie, but the Dutchman showed his class and it is hoped that performances will continue to improve.
5) Philosophy Fusion
Ever since the Dutchman took the reigns at Old Trafford, Louis van Gaal has preached that he will imprint his own philosophy on the football club. In recent weeks, and particularly against Southampton, there were certainly murmurings that the former Ajax man is evolving and tinkering with that philosophy.
After a strong period of form, Marouane Fellaini, put in a sub-par display, but his continued presence in the side ahead of a fit again Ander Herrera is telling. Van Gaal has expressed his belief that you need physical presence in the English game and Fellaini certainly provides that, along with a different option when in possession.
Quicker passing and short, one and two-touch play was noticeably more prevalent following Herrera’s introduction at St Mary’s. There is no doubt that United’s manager favours a passing, possession style of football, but in recent weeks it has not been uncommon to see United passing slightly longer towards an advanced Fellaini and mixing the play up with a bit of variety.
The positive, of course, is that the club appear to possess good variety and options within the squad, but there is no doubt that performances and fluidity of late have perhaps suffered from the manager’s tinkering. The manager needs to decide exactly where he wants to take his side, and injuries have certainly hindered progress. As ever, patience is required, but Van Gaal will get it right.