After a short break in Qatar after defeating Fulham, Manchester United were to play host to Southampton on Wednesday night, looking to capitalise on the points dropped by Manchester City the night before.
For the game, Sir Alex Ferguson named David De Gea in goal, with Nemanja Vidic and Chris Smalling sat in front of him, with Phil Jones on the right and Patrice Evra on the left.In midfield, Carrick and Anderson positioned centrally, with Kagawa and Welbeck providing width, followed by Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie leading the line up front.
The game kicked off in farcical circumstances for the home side, as Michael Carrick played a poor back pass to De Gea, who in turn seemed a little relaxed in getting to the ball and was easily beaten to it by Rodriguez as the Southampton striker got round and finished at a tight angle, giving his side the early 0-1 lead. United were soon on level terms, when Kagawa played through a pass to allow Wayne Rooney in to shoot from 10 yards into the bottom left corner. 1-1 with all to play for.
It was a start that was indicative of an open game, with both sides looking to get forward and create chances. Although it could have been anyone’s guess where the next goal may come from, however just after the midway point of the first half, Van Persie played in a free kick that was met by Patrice Evra at the far post, headed back across goal to allow Wayne Rooney to score his second of the game with a simple tap in. There were to be no more goals in the first half, although Welbeck forced Boruc to save with his legs, and Rooney forced a save with a long range effort late in the first half before the teams went in at half time, 2-1.
The second half began in a fairly scrappy fashion, with little to separate the sides and little in the way of obvious chances. However, as the half progressed, it was clear that Southampton were eager for a way back into the game. In fact the Saints pressed for an equaliser for most of the second period, winning a succession of corners and threatening the hosts’ back line. Lambert went close with a free kick forcing De Gea into a good save. United themselves had some chances to finish the game, Van Persie was denied by Boruc and had the ball in the net with under 15 minutes left, only to get called back for offside. However, the visitors remained in control and set up a tense affair for fans going into the closing stages. Sir Alex tried to shore up the situation,replacing Smalling with Ferdinand, bringing off Anderson for Rafael, moving Jones into midfield as well as removing Kagawa later on for Nani.
Despite the concerns though, United held on as they saw out the game 2-1, With a 7 point gap restored and a fixture with Fulham to look forward to at the weekend, here are five things to be taken from the game.
1) The state of the pitch is no excuse
The condition of United’s pitch has been the subject of some scrutiny in recent weeks, with an apparent deterioration apparent and the potential for a change. However, that should serve as no excuse for United’s issues in the second half. Yes, when a pitch is in poor shape, a team can struggle to get their game together, passes go astray and an unsettled feeling sets in. However, one would have thought that if this were the case, the away team would also have their own struggles, and yet Southampton put up with it without any fuss.
Indeed, the second half was simply a case of Southampton applying the pressure and United appearing panicked with how to deal with it. The visitors came out positively and could have drawn level in what was a tight contest.
2) Michael Carrick at fault for the opener
Within the first couple of minutes, Southampton were gifted an opportunity when Carrick’s slack pass was seized upon by Rodriguez as the striker got round De Gea and finished to go a goal up. The initial reaction appeared to blame De Gea for being slow off the line and Carrick for his awful pass. It could be said De Gea could have done better in coming for it, but that should not take away from Rodriguez who did well to get to it first as well as getting round to score from the tight angle. Despite Carrick’s brilliance this season, the pass was inexplicable and an unusual lapse in the opening stages of the game.
Given the level of criticism aimed at De Gea, particularly following the Tottenham game, it would appear the Spaniard gets far more scrutiny than most. I have made my opinions regarding his future clear before and I maintain my stance that his best years are ahead of him, but the back line needs to be more assured. In fact the defence seemed rattled and in a season where there has been a lack of leadership at the back as well as constant changes with injuries, there has been a lack of solidity at the back, compounding the problems that De Gea has faced and no doubt giving his confidence a knock.
3) Glimpses of Kagawa’s potential
Since returning from injury, Kagawa has found himself a regular in the starting line up, in part due to the lack of wingers in form and available as well as Sir Alex wanting to get him settled to life in the Premier League. It would be fair to say the Japanese midfielder has not yet reached the peaks that made him stand out in the Bundesliga, but with each game fans get to see more of what is possible with him. Against Southampton he had his moments, on a night when the midfield were somewhat underwhelming. Most notably, his pass for Rooney’s first goal was well played and he got involved as United got forward as did Danny Welbeck who continued to look active out wide.
4) Phil Jones – Jack of all trades, master of none?
I have maintained that if United are to see the best of Phil Jones, they are better off consistently utilising him in one position, preferably at centre back, to assert himself and eventually solidify a regular starting spot. One fears that with continuous use in various positions, such as Wednesday night, is that he becomes a player who does not excel at any position in particular but rather is just useful in whatever capacity he is used in. One might liken it to John O’Shea. In fairness, this may not be such a bad thing, O’Shea saw plenty of success at United and found himself used quite often covering for players and taking spells in different areas. However, regardless of this, it cannot be better than having someone world class in a particular area, forming the back bone of a team, rather than somebody who merely fits in whenever required.
5) The Qatari trip, Wayne Rooney and Hernandez’s absence
For all the possible benefits of taking time out to catch some sun and take a break in Qatar for United’s players, one could not help but wonder whether this was really such a useful exercise. Of course, the players would have enjoyed the break and the warmth but the short term consequences are real and it could be argued they were apparent on Wednesday night. Taking nothing away from Southampton, and the spirit they showed, United themselves seemed lacklustre possibly lethargic at times. Certainly Sir Alex will be hoping they will be sharper by the time the weekend rolls around for the game against Fulham.
Fans will have been glad to see Rooney get on the scoresheet as well. The England striker has come in for criticism at times this season, putting in performances that were not up to his usual standards, and in light of Van Persie’s impact at the club since signing, there was more pressure on him to deliver. He finished well for his first goal and the ball was well played for the second. He could have ad a third as he got played in by Van Persie towards the end, but the Saints’ keeper did well to react and collect the ball at his feet. Hopefully, from here he will go on a run of goals and have an important influence as the business end of the season approaches.
Finally, it was interesting to see a lack of strikers on the bench for United, namely in the form of Javier Hernandez. Frankly, I do not think there is anything to read in to this, but it was interesting to see a lack of striking options to call upon. Had the game gone differently, the Mexican’s recent form and knack for scoring when called upon would have been a valuable asset. Perhaps he had a slight knock, or was simply being rested for the weekend.