Five things we learned at Southampton 2-3 Manchester United
Manchester City had been planning to field their new attacking quartet of Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, Sergio Aguero and David Silva for the first time yesterday, only for Silva to pull out during the warm-up. Without him, City were beaten 2-1 at home to West Ham United to give the chasers renewed hope that this would not be a one-horse Premier League title race.
Instead it was Manchester United who were able to play all of their new front four for the first time, with Anthony Martial, Wayne Rooney, Memphis Depay and Juan Mata all started. The results were highly promising. United weren’t convincing throughout but when they did take control it led to three goals that took the game beyond Southampton’s reach.
1. United's new attack gels immediately
In the end this victory was all about United’s new things that make you go MMM - the three Ms, Martial, Mata and Memphis.
Martial will understandably take all the headlines for his two goals, so let’s deal with him first. His overall stats during the game actually weren’t particularly impressive. He completed only 16 of 28 passes - just six of 14 in the attacking third - and won only seven of 13 aerial duels.
But none of that mattered for one simple reason. Give him the ball in front of goal and he scores. Amid the Thierry Henry comparisons, some (well OK, we’ll admit it, Piers Morgan) have suggested he is more similar to Nicolas Anelka. We don’t say this very often, but Piers might actually have half a point.
There was something very Anelka like about the way that Martial sometimes gave the ball away cheaply in general play but looked in total control when the chances came his way.
He was brilliantly composed to turn inside the area and slide home the first, and he took advantage of Maya Yoshida’s kamikaze backpass to race clear and tuck away the second, with an air of a man who was never going to miss. That is what £36m buys you: a ruthless finisher. There aren’t that many of them around.
The add-ons that could take the fee up to £58m could be activated very soon if Martial carries on like this. Three goals in two Premier League appearances. “He has a high level of talent and he shows it under great pressure, it’s may be his greatest talent,” Louis van Gaal said afterwards. “I’m very happy also that he adapts to the system we want to play, because not every player can adapt in that system.”
Behind him, Mata helped United to convert sometimes harmless midfield possession into a meaningful attacking threat. The Spaniard completed 46 of 48 passes and significantly 20 of 21 in the attacking third - six more than anyone else on the field. Mata got his reward with the third goal after some smart play and a shot against the post from Memphis, who also looked impressive in this new look forward line. He successfully completed all 14 of his passes in the attacking third.
2. Patient possession pays off
There was a time in this game early on when United were dominating possession but doing almost nothing with it. While their passes were almost all sideways, Southampton were attempting to be more incisive and it was working. It delivered a goal from Graziano Pelle, then a shot against the post from the same man.
But eventually that insistence on keeping possession with simple passing, instilled by boss Louis van Gaal, paid dividends. United became increasingly dominant as the first half wore on, resulting in their equaliser.
Morgan Schneiderlin didn’t give the ball away once in the opening period on his return to his old club, successfully completing all 40 passes before the interval.
Van Gaal then brought on World Cup winner Bastian Schweinsteiger for Michael Carrick on the hour mark and eight minutes later the rewards of the short passing game were there for all to see.
United completed an incredible 45 passes without losing possession in the build-up to their third goal from Juan Mata. Many of those passes were short, sideways or even backwards, but eventually they worked the ball into a position for Memphis Depay to shoot, and Juan Mata to score the rebound.
“I’m always very happy when you see that kind of goal because with that amount of passes you control the game,” Van Gaal said. “I was very pleased, and of course it’s confirmation of our philosophy. When you have the ball the opponent cannot score.” In total United had 59 per cent possession, completing 493 passes.
3. Rooney was overshadowed
It is only 12 days since Wayne Rooney was the talk of the nation, breaking Bobby Charlton’s England goalscoring record. The good news on his return to Manchester United, after a brief injury lay-off, was that he broke another record. The bad news was it wasn’t one he was hoping to break.
One goal would have put him level with Denis Law in joint third in United’s all-time scoring list, with 171 goals. Instead another game without a goal took his Premier League drought to 11 matches, the longest of his career. Rooney can be an enigma at times. A constant threat for England and the scorer of a hat-trick in Champions League qualifying. In Bruges, he was the film's leading man.
But he has looked surprisingly ineffective in the league. Some put that down to being relied upon as a lone striker before Martial’s arrival. On this occasion he played in the number 10 role just behind Martial but was overshadowed, a supporting actor rather than the star of the show.
It was not that Rooney played badly, but he was the probably the least influential of United’s front four and his statistics - 50 of 56 passes completed, 14 of 18 in the attacking third - did not quite compare to the others. Perhaps significantly, while Martial scored twice, Rooney did not have a shot during the match.
4. United suffered defensively in Shaw’s absence
Louis van Gaal’s post-match press conference became rather interesting when it was suggested to him that Manchester United had looked vulnerable defensively at times during the game. He was having none of it, perhaps surprisingly insisting that his side had defended well. “All the media was writing last season that the defence was very bad, and in the end it was third in the league,” he said.
Then it was pointed that Southampton boss Ronald Koeman, a few minutes beforehand, had asserted that ‘we saw the weakness of United’s defence today’. “You are probably twisting his words,” Van Gaal responded. Informed by others in the room that Koeman had indeed said that, Van Gaal added: “That is also remarkable that he says that.” The Dutch duo haven’t always got on, to say the least.
There was a mischievous look in Van Gaal’s eyes as he appeared to relish the chance to end his press conference with an argument of sorts, albeit not an aggressive one. The debate continued as he made his way out of the room, to chuckles from the press. There were definitely some vulnerabilities displayed by United defensively, at St Mary’s.
This was their first game without the injured Luke Shaw and both Southampton goals came from right-wing crosses - the first when Marcos Rojo was playing at left-back, the second after Daley Blind had moved to that position after Paddy McNair had been introduced. Van Gaal felt Southampton’s late onslaught was a result of United feeling tired following their match at PSV, and also admitted he had replaced Matteo Darmian with Antonio Valencia at half-time because Dusan Tadic was having too much influence.
“He gave too much space to Tadic and he was the most dangerous man, Van Gaal said. “That’s why I changed it and Valencia did very well. I didn’t see Tadic in the second half.”
Sadio Mane was a first-half threat against the side who reportedly made him a transfer target in August. There were also moments when Blind was playing at centre-back that Pelle was able to bully the former Ajax man, who is not the biggest central defender the world has ever seen. Pelle was able to get six shots in.
5. De Gea has a crucial role to play
The main reason why Manchester United’s defensive vulnerabilities didn’t cost them was David De Gea. The Spaniard was unlucky to see Pelle follow up to put Southampton ahead after he had saved Mane’s early effort, but produced two superb saves when United needed him most in the second half.
De Gea of course could and should have been playing for Real Madrid right now but their loss is likely to be United’s gain. The goalkeeper’s save from Victor Wanyama in the dying minutes was brilliant but the pick was his superb stop from Jose Fonte’s header.
Southampton had eight shots on target but because of De Gea they produced only two goals. In contrast, just as they did against Liverpool a week ago, United had three shots on target and scored with all three.