Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good and, in Manchester United’s case, they were very lucky.
Gary Neville remarked the team had “got away with murder,” and while his words are undoubtedly overdramatic, he’s not far off the mark. The Reds’ performance against Southampton was miserable, lifeless, and utterly hopeless but somehow earned them 3 points and extended their winning streak in the Premier League to 5.
Southampton was the better team: they had more chances, they played with more energy, and they dictated the play. Looking at the numbers, Southampton managed 15 shots as compared to United’s piddly 3 and controlled 53% of possession.
Fortunately for United, the only thing that counts is goals, and that’s about the only statistical category in which they were superior when the referee blew the final whistle.
Van Persie puts the team on his back
“Ohh Robin van Persie” could be heard echoing around the terraces Monday night to the tune of the White Stripes’s “Seven Nation Army.”
United fans love Robin van Persie through thick and thin, and why shouldn’t they? This is the man that willed his new club to their 20th league title back in 2013.
One of my favorite Van Persie moments from his debut season was his outrageous hat trick at St. Mary’s that unbelievably snatched 3 points from the jaws of defeat. It was a microcosm of how RVP would continuously put the team on his back for the remainder of the season, and he conjured up memories of that match with his inspired finishing.
Against the run of play, Van Persie scored an opportunistic goal after getting on the end of an errant Jose Fonte back pass and slotting it under Fraser Forster. Van Persie never would have kept running a month ago when Fonte played that ball and even if he did, he might not have finished it off.
His effort to get onto the end of Rooney’s free kick to put his club back on top for good was fantastic, and his technique and concentration to steer it under the onrushing Forster were simply sublime.
No one is suggesting that RVP is the same player that he was two years ago, but his finishing in this game was a testament to his undeniable class.
It also demonstrates the knee-jerk mentality of football journalists everywhere who claimed he could be on his way out of Old Trafford next summer following a string of bad performances. 6 goals in 14 league appearances this season probably isn’t a ratio that the Dutchman is proud of, but it isn’t bad and he’s now scored 3 goals in his last 3 appearances. Write off Van Persie at your own peril.
Van Gaal gets it wrong
Even great coaches get it wrong sometimes.
From United’s point of view, everything was bad minus the result. The players will bear most of the blame – probably due in large part to their inability to string more than 3 or 4 passes together – but Louis van Gaal was silently one of United’s biggest underachievers against the Saints.
The contentious personal rivalry between Van Gaal and Koeman was played up in the buildup to this fixture, and while Van Gaal’s side might walk away with the result, it was Koeman who ultimately won this battle of wits.
LVG lined his men up in a 5-3-2 (3-4-1-2, 3-4-3, whatever…) for the away trip, and Koeman was ready for it.
The Saints pressed extremely high, often pushing four players forward to pressure United’s wobbly back five. If Jonny Evans, Marcos Rojo, and co. weren’t losing the ball in their own half or attempting low-percentage long balls to Rooney and Van Persie, they were passing it out wide to Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia, who would generally be forced to dump it because of the pressure.
The lack of wide options in midfield due to the formation’s narrowness in addition to the ineptness of the players to keep the ball and find good outlets meant that United was often times giving possession right back to Southampton. Additionally, the long balls essentially bypassed the midfield, meaning Juan Mata’s influence on the game was essentially nullified.
Even when United’s defenders could pick out one of their midfielders dropping deep (Fellaini, Carrick, and Herrera all at different intervals), the latter would dally on the ball too long or pass the ball right to the opposition.
Lucky for LVG, Southampton didn’t really play well either; they might have created a plethora of chances, but they very rarely threatened to score.
Old Trafford’s Revolving Door
Aaaaaaaand down goes Chris Smalling.
It felt inevitable that Smalling was going to get injured sooner or later – he’s played too well for too many games in a row. United’s trio of Smalling, Evans, and Jones are always banged up, and it’s starting to become a major problem.
Continuity is important when developing chemistry between players in a team, so how is Manchester United supposed to do that when they can never field the same center back pairing for more than a few weeks at a time?
It’s obvious that something is wrong with how the aforementioned defenders look after their bodies. Some injuries are unlucky, yes, but you have to question their preparation leading up to matches when they keep getting injured.
One thing that stuck out to me when it became apparent that Smalling was struggling with injury was how Jonny Evans didn’t even attempt to warmup. Instead of getting loose on the touch line, Evans was lackadaisically pulling his training bottoms off as if he had just fallen out of bed.
I recently had the privilege of accompanying a former European professional player to an open tryout. You could tell he was the only serious candidate to move onto the next round from his session just by watching his preparation in contrast to the other amateur players: he was the only player who put any real effort into his warmup.
Needless to say, he moved onto the next day, and he’s already had positive discussions with management about training with the first team.
This is such a silly concept to discuss when writing about a club as massive as Manchester United, but many injuries (and poor performances for that matter) are preventable through taking warmups seriously. Evans look stiff at times (especially when he first entered the fray) and probably was lucky not to come away with an injury based on his bleak medical record.
LVG will no doubt draw some criticism, but this trio has been perpetually injured going back to when Sir Alex Ferguson was in charge. Smalling and Jones have both shown some real quality when fit recently (I still can’t say the same for Evans), but maybe it’s time to move them on if they can’t keep themselves healthy.
I’m not suggesting that United will bring in any center backs in January (with a lack of top defenders in the game right now, there is virtually no chance that anybody will be available when the midseason transfer window opens), but they should start developing a list of suitable replacements to bring in for the next season if they haven’t already started doing so.
Man of the Match: Robin van Persie
From zero to hero in a matter of weeks, Van Persie was one of the very few players who actually had a decent game. He was strong on the ball, found good outlets with his passing, tracked back well, and was brimming with confidence from the outset. His two goals were the difference.
Flop of the Match: Wayne Rooney
While Van Persie was the star of the show, his partner in attack couldn’t seem to do much right. Ineffective, devoid of energy, and otherwise invisible for long stretches, Rooney did almost nothing to impact this game. His body language was reminiscent of Van Persie’s earlier in the season as he let his frustrations get the best of him, and he even failed to put in his usual work on defense. One should expect much more out of the man wearing the captain’s armband.