In midweek, United’s second string destroyed a poor Burton Albion side, but on Saturday it was time for the first eleven to take on a Southampton side that has struggled to score in recent games. Historically, United do well at St Mary’s and thankfully, they won the game, albeit with their worst performance of the season.
Mourinho reverted to the starting eleven that played Everton in the last Premier League game, with Young preferred at left back and Mata, Mkhitaryan and Rashford behind Lukaku. Fellaini again was the preferred Pogba stand-in, forming an imposing midfield partnership with Matic. Southampton chose Long upfront while at the back they left Van Dijk out, Yoshida and Hoedt started instead.
The game started very slowly, with United looking happy to allow Southampton to have the ball. There were a lot of sideways passes from the Saints, with no penetration through United’s strong central block.
The opening goal came in the 19th minute. Young had got forward for the first time on the left, cut back onto his right foot and sent an in-swinging cross into the box. Lukaku brushed off Hoedt, climbing to head at goal. Forster made a great reaction save, clawing it off the line but the parry fell to the feet of Lukaku who poked it home. From a technical standpoint, this was the worst finish from Lukaku so far, but he won’t care. That’s 8 in 8 now for the Belgian.
The rest of the first half was largely uneventful. Rashford went close with a free kick from 30 yards, but aside from that, neither side created any meaningful chances. United spent the middle of the half keeping possession without much urgency, strolling forward then dropping back when the chances didn’t come. Then near the end of the half, they regressed deeper to allow Southampton to have the ball, their impotent attack deemed unthreatening.
At this point, the game was shaping up to be a comfortable, well-managed victory by United. They had got the lead, now they were managing the opposition well without urgently attempting to score. However, throughout the second half, they dropped deeper and deeper, ending the game under siege. This problem was almost entirely their own creation.
Southampton came out of the blocks strongly. Long came into the game, starting to win headers and was a general nuisance to the United defence. 5 minutes into the half, Southampton had a corner from United’s left. The ball made it all the way to the 6-yard line unchallenged, Yoshida taking the ball down. Time seemed to freeze as Romeu stormed in, only to scuff it wide of the goal.
The Reds seemed to have got hold of the game, getting the ball back and pushing Southampton back into their own half. But then the Saints rallied with a flurry of chances. Redmond drilled a shot in from the right side of United’s box that was easily smothered by De Gea. Minutes later, Redmond broke through Matic and past Valencia before looping a cross in, only for Long to nod wide.
United then had a scare when a long ball was played over the top for Long to chase. He and Jones collided on the edge of the area as the defender tried to catch him. The ref gave no foul, but on another day this could have been a red for the United defender. If he had gone, this would have robbed us of a tremendous defensive performance by Jones. Despite his tendency to look like he is permanently falling over, he has been impressive this season.
Another Long half chance and a Davis long shot caused Mourinho to act. With an hour gone, he hooked the anonymous Mata for Herrera. Soon after, United had their first chance of the second half. Lukaku pushed Hoedt off the field of play on the right wing, laying it off to Mkhitaryan. He took the ball in towards the area, giving it back to Lukaku slightly too late. With his weaker foot, he drilled a poor shot straight at Forster.
Southampton went up the other end and won another corner. This time, Fellaini was forced to head off the line from Romeu, who had climbed above Nemanja Matic. Matic had failed to outmuscle the Spaniard or beat him in the air. This was poor from the Serb, who probably had his worst performance in a United shirt (although he has set the bar high).
United were now on the edge of their area, a massive gap between Lukaku and the rest of the side. Meanwhile, Gabbiadini was brought on for Davis as the Saints went to two up top. Mourinho countered by bringing Smalling on for Mkhitaryan. Would this be to move to the 3-5-2 shape we’ve seen already this season? To get Rashford and Lukaku both up for the counter attack? No. It was the return of last season’s tactical innovation, the back 6. Valencia and Rashford flanked a back four of Bailly, Smalling, Jones and Young.
It was all Southampton now, United no longer pressing and only having Lukaku to aim for when they did regain the ball. The Saints then fashioned a chance with their best bit of play, Gabbiadini, Romeu and Tadic all combining with one touch football. Romeu was eventually played into the right of United’s six-yard box, his shot across goal trickled agonisingly wide. It would be hard to argue that they didn’t deserve that ball to go in.
Herrera then had a chance to end the game. Rashford, on one of the now rare occasions he had the ball in the opposition half, found Lukaku running to the byline. The Belgian pulled the ball the ball back to Herrera on the edge of the box, who took a moment to get the ball out from under his feet. The Basque midfielder blazed the ball over the bar when he should have slotted it away.
Southampton made their last two changes, bringing on Austin for Long and Ward-Prowse for Cedric. By now, United often had a back 7, sat on the edge of the area desperately clearing everything that came in. However, the Saints never really had another chance at goal, despite having all the ball and no players pressing them. Blind was then brought on for Rashford in the final minutes; it was all out defence.
At the death of the game, Southampton won a corner. All 22 players were in the area, ready for the ball to be swung in. Just before Ward-Prowse played it in, the ref blew up and was summoned over to the technical area, where he promptly sent off Mourinho. Watching it live, it was unclear what infringement had taken place. It was later revealed that Mourinho had entered the field of play, barely stepping over the touchline. Jose shook the hands of the Southampton staff (making sure not to miss anyone), then was off to the stands.
Southampton’s final corner came in, the ball was cleared and played back in and cleared again. This was desperate play from both teams, Forster scrambling back as his teammates barraged the United box. Finally, Eric Bailly stepped in and cleared the ball away with an overhead kick. The referee blew up, the three points had been secured. Lukaku fell to his knees with a mixture of delight and relief.
This was very much a game of two halves for United. The first half was almost a perfect 2017/18 performance, United dictating the pattern of the game, with Lukaku being the difference between the two teams. The second half was the worst of the 2016/17 side, the whole team behind the ball, desperately clinging on to a narrow lead against a team they should have swatted aside. Jones, Bailly and Lukaku apart, everyone was below par. But United didn’t lose and stay level on points with City at the summit of the table. Let’s just hope this is the last we see of the back 6.