When Louis Van Gaal unzips his leather document case and flicks through the pages to the chapter marked “philosophy” you imagine that it is goals of the kind his Manchester United team scored in the 68th minute today that figure most prominently.
There were 45 passes in the build-up to Juan Mata’s goal, the third for United on the day, with the penultimate, a Memphis Depay shot, ricocheting off the post and back to the Spanish midfielder, like the completion of some outrageous training ground challenge. It was beautiful to watch and it felt like the kind of goal you employ a Dutch manager to coach your team to score. It might be, for United – for now - peak Van Gaal.
Certainly it was a good day in the end for United who go second in the Premier League with the benefit of two more goals for their new £58m striker Anthony Martial. If the teenager carries on at this pace, Ed Woodward will be writing the cheques to Monaco for the add-ons before May. The Frenchman showed today that he is a finisher with ice in his veins.
The nice thing about Martial was that having given poor old Virgil Van Dijk the proverbial twisted blood on his home debut he later obliged by proving the cramp stretch for the Southampton defender in the last few minutes of the game. “What a waste of money” the United fans sang, delighted, when the second goal went in, although it was another day when they had plenty to ponder the things wrong with their team.
Graziano Pelle’s second goal of the day, four minutes from time meant that the gentle cruise to victory was once again turned into a bit of a scramble. By then Van Gaal had already replaced right-back Matteo Darmian with Antonio Valencia and then Marcos Rojo made way for Paddy McNair with Daley Blind moved to left-back. Having floundered in the first half and then improved after the break, United’s defence went back to living on the edge.
They struggled with crosses, and it required a brilliant David De Gea save before the hour to deny Jose Fonte. As the pressure was cranked up in the closing stages, United’s goalkeeper did the same with a Victor Wanyama shot. His team-mates had clawed back control and then become vulnerable once again, although in the end they just about had enough in them to see the game out.
It was still a win at Southampton who, while only 16th, remain a difficult team to beat. They made it easier this time with a bad error by Maya Yoshida for the second Martial goal and the Saints were not helped by a poor decision by the linesman on the first.
The home team had run the first half and their opening goal was a beauty, taking advantage of the indifference among the away side to throw limbs in front of dangerous crosses and loose rebounds. It started on the right when James Ward-Prowse’s fine right-footed cross was barely challenged by Rojo, now covering for the injured Luke Shaw.
Sadio Mane, briefly an United target during the summer window, was a problem for Van Gaal’s team all game insomuch as they struggled to get alongside him at critical moments. On this occasion, he had been given plenty of time to spread the ball wide to Ward-Prowse before getting on the end of the cross. De Gea got a right hand to the ball and when it popped back into the United area, Pelle swept it back in under very little pressure at all.
He hit the post a minute later when United gave the ball away needlessly and Orio Romeu passed the ball into the feet of the Italian, who turned off his left shoulder and beat De Gea to his left. United’s passing was so poor. When they did manage to hang onto the ball, they moved it unambitiously in front of Southampton rather than through them.
Martial had shown a flicker of his quick feet on 31 minutes when he embarked on a run that ended in a poor pass. Shortly afterwards he finished beautifully but not before United had got away with one. From Fonte’s miscued clearance, Morgan Schniederlin headed the ball back into the United box where Mata, isolated on the right, was offside. He took the ball on and was tackled by Yoshida.
From there the ball fell to Martial who turned Van Dijk with such razor-sharpness that the Dutch defender was obliged to watch the United man’s finish while looking back over his shoulder. The second Martial goal, five minutes into the second half, was a gift from Yoshida whose back pass was right into his path. As he did against Liverpool, the Frenchman opened his body and passed the ball into the far corner with his right foot.
The 45-pass extravaganza, including one peach of a ball from substitute Bastian Schweinsteiger, was finished by Mata for United’s third after Depay had hit the post. That should have been it for United but they conceded again from Pelle’s header from Mane’s cross when there was barely a defender near the Italian. They held out in the end, but only just.
Southampton (4-2-3-1): Stekenlenburg; Yoshida, Fonte, Van Dijk, Targett (Martina, ht); Wanyama, Romeu (Davis, 56); Ward-Prowse (Long, 76), Tadic, Mane; Pelle.
Substitutes not used: Davis (gk), Soares, Rodriguez, Juanmi.
Manchester United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Darmian (Valencia, ht), Smalling, Blind, Rojo (McNair, 70); Carrick, Schneiderlin; Mata, Rooney, Depay; Martial.
Substitutes not used: Romero (gk), Young, Herrera, Fellaini, Schweinsteiger.
Referee: M Clattenburg
Booked: Van Dijk, Fonte.
Man of the match: Martial
Rating: 7Reuse content