As he walked past the Stretford End to the sanctuary of the dressing room, Louis van Gaal was mocked and insulted. If he had hoped that engineering a fourth successive victory over Liverpool last Sunday would have bought him respect or even a breathing space, it disappeared in the jeers from a thousand throats.
When asked if this was the worst reaction he had encountered since taking over at Old Trafford, he replied: “Yes, it was very clear. I cannot change that feeling. I can only work hard with the players. I am trying to change things but it is not an easy job.”
If Van Gaal is approaching the end of his expensive, aimless time as manager of Manchester United, his epitaph will be that it was the routine fixtures rather than the big, set-piece events that dragged him down. His team have never failed to beat Liverpool but this was the second successive time they had lost at home to a Southampton side managed by Ronald Koeman, who pointed out that the club’s previous win at Old Trafford had come 27 years before.
On the final whistle, Koeman punched the air with both fists. All victories taste sweet but this would have been especially satisfying.
It had been secured by Charlie Austin on his Southampton debut. When he went on, just before a set-piece, Koeman had joked that the striker should go up and score with a header. Seven minutes and 43 seconds later, he did.
There was nobody marking the striker when he stooped to meet James Ward-Prowse’s free-kick, although Van Gaal pointed out that by then Marouane Fellaini and Matteo Darmian were no longer on the pitch. Fellaini had been substituted during the interval, Darmian was replaced, suffering from badly bruised ribs and spitting blood after a collision, the fifth injury to a full-back United had suffered this season.
There were still eight minutes left, including five of added time, for United to level after the goal. But these days the last few minutes pass swiftly at Old Trafford.
There was a shot from Adnan Januzaj, back after a disastrous loan at Borussia Dortmund, but United’s only shot on target had come from Daley Blind early in the first half – directed straight at the keeper.
Even by the sullen standards of this season at Old Trafford, the opening 45 minutes had been glacially still. For the 11th successive time you could have turned up to Old Trafford at half time and not missed a United goal.
At Liverpool, Wayne Rooney had said his side had turned around the match with some harsh words in the dressing room during the interval. Here, they should have attacked each other with baseball bats.
Koeman recognised that, despite their victory at Anfield, United were still gripped by nerves.
“We knew it would be difficult for Manchester United because they have to fight for the title,” he said. “The fans here expect good football, goals and a win. Our message to the players was that Manchester United will be nervous.”
When asked why a team that had just won at Anfield should have been so empty of confidence, Van Gaal pondered a moment and said gently: “That is a question.” It was one he appeared to have little answer to.
Van Gaal and Koeman fell out badly at Ajax, where the former was technical director and the latter was the first-team manager. “It will work because Van Gaal is ready to say goodbye to coaching,” Koeman had said at the time. He soon discovered the error of that statement but now Van Gaal might be very ready to say his goodbyes.