Southampton 2 Manchester United 3: Manchester United’s transformation is gaining momentum thanks to two goals from Anthony Martial in a 3-2 victory at Southampton which takes them to second in the table; but it wasn’t quite enough to end a long-running debate over the quality of their defence.
Certainly Martial, signed for €50m from Monaco on transfer deadline day, was outstanding at St Mary’s and will garner most of the headlines; but the way United handled Southampton’s Graziano Pelle and Sadio Mane at the other end of the field suggest Louis van Gaal still has work to do before his team have the real look of champions — even if he took umbrage at the suggestion.
In fact, Van Gaal was prickly in his post-match interview here despite a hugely encouraging victory which not only featured an excellent performance from Martial but also a goal from Juan Mata that featured 45 passes in the build-up — plus two world-class saves from David De Gea, the goalkeeper who recently agreed a new contract after a move to Real Madrid fell through.
Those highlights ensured United came from 1-0 down (Pelle scoring early on) to win 3-2 (Pelle also adding a late consolation in a nervy finale) and sit only two points behind leaders Manchester City.
So why was the post-match discussion all about defending?
There were several reasons; firstly United found targetman Pelle and livewire partner Mane almost impossible to handle and made a string of defensive errors in the match, with Danny Blind particularly culpable.
Secondly right-back Darmian was hauled off at half-time — and thirdly Southampton manager Ronald Koeman dared to mention United’s ‘defensive weaknesses’ in his analysis of the game.
“Maybe you have twisted his words,” said an irked van Gaal? “No? That is also remarkable.
“I don’t agree. Did you see the goals-against record — and also last season?All the media was writing the defence was very bad but in the end we were third in the Premier League. I’m not concerned, but you have to write that.
“I thought our defence was good – but not in the last 15 minutes and I have explained the reason for that. Did you not notice we had a Champions League game in midweek? And not many of the Champions League teams have won.”
It was another one those mystifying rants from van Gaal, because United were certainly uncomfortable at the back — and he even said taking off Darmian at half-time because the fullback had given Southampton winger Tadic ‘too much space’. But, equally, they were hugely effective going forward with Martial at the tip.
Southampton began the match with verve, however, taking the lead after 13 minutes when Pelle swept home after De Gea saved from Mane.
The lead was deserved and should have been doubled when Mane, again, caused problems with his energy and Pelle struck a shot against the far post when he had plenty of time to do better. But after that the Saints were architects of their own downfall as they sat back and allowed United too much possession.
Van Gaal’s side, with Marcos Rojo unconvincing at left-back in place of injured Luke Shaw, had looked uncomfortable and nervous at the back — but up front they are a different story, in particular when Martial gets on the ball.
His first goal had a touch of fortune because Mata was clearly offside as United lofted a ball back into the box after Southampton had cleared.
But the way Martial dummied his marker before coolly finishing in the opposite corner was pure class.
His second, in the 50th minute, was also ruthless as the number nine pounced on a terrible back pass from Yoshida and in the blink of an eye swept the ball past Stekelenburg to put United ahead.
Southampton came very close to equalising when De Gea made an astonishing one-handed save from a Jose Fonte header that had already gone past him but United looked increasingly composed.
The third goal came after 68 minutes when Depay cut in from the left at the end of a 45-pass move that involved everyone except Martial and saw his shot hit Stekelenburg’s right-hand post — the ball rebounded all the way to Mata and his instant shot flashed into the net for 3-1.
There was still a nervy finale to come when United’s defence lost Pelle who thundered home a header – before De Gea produced another stunning save from a long-distance Wanyama shot.
Stekelnburg 6; Yoshida 5, Fonte 7, Van Dijk 6, Targett 6 (Martina 46; 6); Romeu 6 (Davis 56; 6), Wanyama 7; Tadic 6, Ward-Prowse 6, Mane 7; Pelle 7. Subs not used: Soares, Long, Rodriguez, Juanmi.
De Gea 7; Darmian 5 (Valencia 46; 7), Smalling 6, Blind 5, Rojo 6 (McNair 69; 6); Schneiderlin 6, Carrick 6 (Schweinsteiger 61;6) Depay 7, Rooney 6, Mata 8; Martial 8. Subs not used: Romero, Young, Herrera, Fellaini
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