Manchester United made it five wins in a row in the Premier League after coming out of a poor match against high flying Southampton with a 2-1 victory. The result moved the Red Devils up to third position in the Premier League, with just Chelsea and Manchester City above them in the table. Robin Van Persie scored a neat brace as Louis Van Gaal’s men leapfrogged their hosts.
It may not have been the best of matches for the neutral but all that matters at the moment is continuing the growing momentum and securing the three points. Ahead of the crunch match at home to Liverpool, United now have a chance of moving 10 points clear of their rivals with a win on Sunday lunchtime.
Here are five key thoughts on the vital win down on the south coast on Monday night.
1) United were very lucky and must improve over Christmas
Van Gaal said it himself in his post-match interview, United were extremely lucky and received two presents from the Southampton defence. The first, a stray back-pass from Saints captain Jose Fonte, handed Van Persie the simplest of chances to open the scoring in a half that saw United look more likely to concede than score themselves.
Although the winning goal was a very tidy volleyed finish from the Dutchman, there is no doubt that Wayne Rooney’s delivery should have been claimed by the goalkeeper. At the other end, United were a disaster waiting to happen in defence as they handed Southampton several chances of their own throughout the game. If it weren’t for indecisive finishing from the hosts, it could have been a totally different story at the final whistle. Luckily for United, it wasn’t.
2) The return of clinical Van Persie was very welcome
He has had his critics this season but Van Persie was the difference on Monday. The Dutchman has looked a shadow of his former self in previous matches under Van Gaal as he has often laboured around the pitch without having a huge influence on proceedings. He has even missed easy chances on goal, which is so unlike Van Persie.
However, at St Mary’s, Van Persie was back to his former self and was definitely United’s best and most effective outfield player on the day. He worked tirelessly and held the ball up extremely well. He was the only player who showed any sort of quality whilst in possession and got his rewards as he slid two neat finishes under Fraser Forster. United and Southampton were both guilty of making plenty of errors on the day but the difference was United had a man to finish the chances they received.
3) Van Persie has all of United’s three shots – their lowest tally since Opta stats began
As a proud Opta analyst, I am in a good position to say that statistics have become valuable to the way football is viewed, especially in recent years. Whether you like looking at the numbers or not, you’d have to be quite naïve to disagree. Therefore, it came as a shock to see that United had their fewest number of shots on goal since Opta began collecting Premier League data. To attempt just three shots in a Premier League game is, on paper, absolutely abysmal.
Rarely did United look like putting any sort of sustained pressure on the Southampton goal as they lacked pace to counter their opponents attacks and were let off the hook by two defensive mishaps. Van Persie’s two goals and his first half shot that fired narrowly wide were the only attempts on goal the Red Devils were able to have. After seeing this shocking stat, Van Gaal must be counting his lucky stars that United were able to secure the three points.
4) Better teams will punish sloppy errors in possession
Having been so impressive in possession in the last couple of games, United were absolutely dreadful in comparison here. Nearly all of Southampton’s sightings of goals came from the defenders or midfielders giving the ball away carelessly in their own half. On another day, if United were playing against a better side, it could have been an embarrassing score-line.
To scrape through and secure the three points was fantastic but Van Gaal’s side must improve over the Christmas period to continue this fine run of form, starting with the Liverpool game on Sunday. There is no doubt the 3-5-2 system didn’t help as it was too easy for Saints to put pressure on the defence and there were so many gaps for the Saints to exploit. Hopefully the manager will realise this and revert back to a more conventional system with four at the back from now on.
5) It could be the last we see of McNair for a while
Van Gaal showed how ruthless he can be on Monday night. It was unfortunate to see young defender Paddy McNair hauled off just before half time but in truth, he had put in a shocking performance and looked bereft of any confidence. He had handed the Saints two huge chances on goal before leaving the field and it was lucky for United that they didn’t manage to take them.
McNair has had a good, solid run in the first team this season which will stand him in good stead in the long run, but it could be the last we see of him for a long time. A demotion back to the under-21 side, to help him boost his confidence will do McNair good. With first team centre-backs returning by the week, now appears the right time to take him out of the spotlight.