Manchester United vs Southampton match report: Dusan Tadic stuns Old Trafford as Saints march on in pursuit of Champions League

Manchester United 0 Southampton 1

Ronald Koeman smiled, paused and soaked up the sweetest of questions. He and Louis van Gaal are very old foes so had the man with the superiority complex, whose side had just been beaten, proved willing to engage him in conversation? “I was very happy,” Koeman replied, answering a different question. “We shake hands and that was enough. It was a good feeling.”

The Southampton manager, remember, was head coach at Ajax when Van Gaal, the then technical director, took him aside to discuss his performance. Koeman had just won his second Dutch title. “I don’t know if you’ve read my contract, but the only person I have to justify myself to is the general manager,”  Koeman told him. Their relationship has never been the same since.

Koeman would have been happy to have the conversation last night. The scoreline provides a piece of history – Southampton’s first win here in 27 years – which makes it tempting to talk about another chink in the armour of the one-time fortress of Old Trafford. But Southampton have climbed above Manchester United into third place in the Premier League on merit – because he won the tactical battle and also has a very fine defence, a rather under-appreciated quality these days.

Van Gaal, whose irritable and irascible demeanour in defeat made him by far the less impressive of the two, went for a three-man defence against one of the prime exponents of the system; a manager who rightly observed it took the pace out of the home team and who knew he could staunch United’s threat by pushing tight on their wing-backs and squeezing the life out of Michael Carrick in midfield.

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Manchester United defender Tyler Blackett can't reach the shot from Southampton's Serbian midfielder Dusan Tadic

 

The United manager provided a highly complicated exposition of how he had selected his squad with expectations about which of his substitutes would tire. But he somehow conspired to pick three centre-halves for the bench, which was less than useful when his attacking players were showing  little means of breaking through the best rearguard in the Premier League. He lost the tactical war.

The result returns us to that sense of not knowing how far along the journey United actually are under Van Gaal. If Liverpool or Arsenal had been anything like decent, Van Gaal would not be presiding over a top-four team. He has the same number of points as his predecessor David Moyes had at the same stage last season following a less than average arrival into the new year: three points from nine.

United’s delivery from wide was poor. Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata could not drive the creative side of the home team’s game with imaginative runs. Angel Di Maria was unable to stamp anything like a £59.7m quality on the match on his full return from a six-week absence.

It was an afternoon that called for that stroke of genius – the injection of the unexpected – because there is a reason why Southampton have conceded four fewer goals than any other team in the Premier League this season. Players like Jose Fonte, Florin Gardos and, before he limped out of the game and later out of the stadium on crutches, Toby Alderweireld gave Van Gaal’s players very slim pickings indeed.

 

United’s own defence also looked more solid than on occasion this season, though Koeman’s side were able to pounce on its solitary moment of indecision, thanks to Dusan Tadic, an £8m Serbian who has quietly emerged as a top-value signing. Tadic slid the pass of the match to Graziano Pelle and was ready to take the ball back when it rebounded off a post after 69 minutes, and strike it home. Koeman was unhappy that Tadic, more overwhelmed by his achievement than his manager, had ripped off his shirt for no more reason than to show off his torso.

There had been some initial powers of self-expression in Van Gaal’s attack-minded line-up and Robin van Persie’s early exuberance made up for the absence yet again of Radamel Falcao, on whom United’s £20m outlay including £265,000-a-week wages looks more questionable by the week. Behind Van Gaal’s long discussion of the subject was the sense that he does not care much for the player.

But the flashes of United class – a magisterial pass from Carrick chested down and levered up for Phil Jones who took it over the dead-ball line – were occasional. Even the early blow of Alderweireld’s departure after overstretching a left leg to cut out a pass for Di Maria did not stop  Southampton cutting out United’s threat.

There was just no decisive forward United pass in the final third. Di Maria looked increasingly like a man making his way back, slapping a short ball when Jones ran into his path narrowly wide of the right-hand post and opting for a weak shot when a momentary lack of awareness by Gardos – Alderweireld’s replacement who initially looked exploitable – allowed him to race on to Van Persie’s lob across the box. Any hopes Luke Shaw had of silencing the boos which rang out for him from the Southampton fans were effectively quelled by Nathaniel Clyne.

United looked again for intensity after the interval. An innovative Van Persie overhead kick sent Di Maria running into the left-hand side of the area but Gardos, growing as the game went on, was his equal. When Di Maria materialised on the opposite flank, whipping a fearsome low cross with pace and power into the six-yard box, Rooney could not connect. Van Persie’s booking, for swinging a foot at Fonte as the Southampton captain shielded possession, revealed the mounting frustration and the striker departed with an ankle injury.

The goal arrived 10 minutes later and with both Van Persie and Di Maria gone and Mata spurning three late  chances, United did not look like coming back. Van Gaal deflected away all questions and engaged in his usual routine of implying that his inquisitors were stupid. But he knew he had been intellectually defeated. His ego will be bruised as much as Koeman’s is buoyed.

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