Manchester United will end 2017 in third place in the Premier League standings after playing out a lethargic goalless draw at home to Southampton on Saturday evening, leaving them without a win in their last three fixtures. Chelsea’s thumping 5-0 win over Stoke City earlier in the day saw Antonio Conte’s men leapfrog United into second place, whilst leaders Manchester City could move 17 points ahead of Jose Mourinho’s side with a win over Crystal Palace on Sunday. In truth, United’s draw with the Saints was no more than their performance deserved, after putting in a pedestrian showing that lacked creativity and any sort of attacking verve.
Mourinho made three changes to the side that was held to a 2-2 draw at home to Burnley on Boxing Day, as Victor Lindelof came in for Marcos Rojo at centre-back, whilst Marcus Rashford was left on the bench with Henrikh Mkhitaryan handed a surprise place in the starting XI in his place. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who was hauled off at half-time against the Clarets, was omitted from the matchday squad altogether, as Tuesday’s two-goal hero Jesse Lingard was drafted in.
Rashford, however, did not have to wait long to get out onto the pitch, as Romelu Lukaku was stretchered off inside the opening the 10 minutes following a nasty-looking clash of heads with Saints defender Wesley Hoedt. The Belgian though should have opened the scoring for United a couple of minutes earlier, when he headed a glorious opportunity over the bar. It was Paul Pogba who initiated the move with a beautiful cross-field pass to Juan Mata on the right wing and the Spaniard quickly got the ball out of his feet to deliver a left-footed cross onto the head of the unmarked Lukaku, who should have buried the game’s first real chance.
At the other end, David de Gea was called into action shortly after and pulled off a fantastic low save to deny Southampton’s James Ward-Prowse, although Luke Shaw should have snuffed out the danger earlier. The United left-back put in a decent performance against his former club and was particularly effective going forward, with his pace often troubling the Saints right-back Jack Stephens. A lightning-quick counter-attack by the home side soon came to nothing as Mkhitaryan, making his first league start since the beginning of November, overhit his cross and the move fizzled out, much to the frustration of the United faithful and the waiting Rashford and Lingard. The Armenian looked like a player short on confidence and his performance against the Saints is likely to earn him another start anytime soon, as he regularly lost possession when in promising positions in the final third, although, to his credit, he worked tirelessly without the ball to support Shaw at left-back.
United will feel that they should have been awarded a penalty when Maya Yoshida’s arm got in the way of Lingard and a promising attacking position, however, referee Craig Poulsen waved away the home side’s protests. The England international should have scored shortly before half-time when his glancing header from Mkhitaryan’s left-wing cross crept past the post and out for a goal-kick.
The second 45 minutes were just as drab as the opening 45, with United showing a lack of ideas in their attempts to break down a Southampton backline that conceded five at Tottenham Hotspur earlier this week. Shortly after the restart, it was the visitors that came closest to breaking the deadlock, with de Gea somehow turning Shane Long’s low shot over the bar with his foot just when it seemed that the ball was destined to spin into the back of the net. Midway through the second-half, the disappointing Mkhitaryan was replaced by Anthony Martial and the Frenchman immediately won a free-kick in a dangerous position, although Ashley Young’s effort was deflected behind for a corner.
United thought they had nicked all three points in the final 10 minutes, when Pogba stabbed home Nemanja Matic’s close-range shot, only for the Frenchman to be flagged for offside. Replays suggested that the Serb’s effort might have crept into the bottom corner had Pogba not intervened. United, though, failed to create much for the remainder of the game and jeers rang around Old Trafford at the final whistle as the curtain came down on a hugely disappointing December that has seen the Red Devils win just three of their seven league matches and suffer an embarrassing elimination from the Carabao Cup at the hands of Championship outfit Bristol City.
With the January transfer window set to open on Monday, it will be interesting to see whether Mourinho feels the need to dip into the market and strengthen his squad. Whilst the league title is surely out of reach, United must ensure that they close the gap with City as much as possible and secure second place, as well as mount serious challenges for the Champions League and FA Cup.
Next up for Mourinho is a tricky trip to Goodison Park to take on a rejuvenated Everton side on New Year’s Day and there is little doubt that United must up their game considerably if they are to leave Merseyside with anything over than three points.