“They’re back to the old, lucky United,” said Sky’s Jamie Carragher. He was half right.
Manchester United’s 2-1 win at Southampton – a fifth victory in succession that has taken Louis van Gaal’s side up to third in the Premier League – did have an air of the Sir Alex Ferguson era about it.
The visitors’ three shots on goal in the entire match was a season low by any side in the Premier League– and United’s lowest since August 2003.
True, their first-half display was every bit as bad as the one produced at the Emirates recently. But United then against Arsenal, as on Monday, found a path to victory.
On another night, Shane Long may well have guided his two presentable openings into the net, but to say that United were lucky is to disregard the best part of two decades worth of league and cup honours for the Red Devils.
To pay lip service to van Gaal’s bold decision to make a second substitution to his side with over half the game remaining is a nod to the type of kamikaze defending Arsene Wenger seemed apathetic towards against Stoke at the weekend.
In replacing the sorry Paddy McNair after 39 minutes, van Gaal was on message: ‘Our defence is in disarray. Sort it out.’ And for all the percentage statistics being weighed heavily in Southampton’s favour, United were a far more resolute defensive unit thereafter.
It does help of course when you’re spear-headed by a man who just loves playing against the Saints. Robin van Persie’s seven goals in as many appearances against them is testament to the amount he loves a trip to the south coast.
The Dutchman came away with the match ball following a hat-trick two seasons ago, and despite the scanty six touches United managed in Southampton’s penalty area during the entire 90 minutes on Monday night, his two were all that was required to clinch victory.
The first, on the one hand a gift, showed glimpses that van Persie has rediscovered his predatory instincts, pouncing on Jose Fonte’s sleepy backpass. Flat-footed and cumbersome as he appeared in the season’s early rounds, here he bristled with an awareness and deftness of touch that was lacking in his teammates for huge swathes of the match.
There was no question of Fraser Forster’s indecision in not rushing to snuff out the opener which came against the run of play, but accusations that the Southampton stopper – heroic as he was against Arsenal last week – has lost a degree of authority since his mistake at Aston Villa can be levelled at him based on United’s second.
Some, like Carragher perhaps, might argue that van Persie’s flick squirmed ‘luckily’ through the legs of Forster. But the England goalkeeper should have claimed the ball from inside his own six-yard box. As it was, it had all the hallmarks of a classic United winner, minus the need for Fergie time. It even reads ‘Rooney cross, van Persie left-foot volley, goal’. For how long and how frequent have we seen the former Arsenal striker tracking a high ball and connecting sweetly, all the while appearing to have ghosted in unmarked.
There was nothing lucky about this. Naïve, most certainly. Ronald Koeman elected to make a substitution as the visitors lined up a free-kick in a dangerous position, clearly believing that replacing Dusan Tadic with 18-year-old debutant Jake Hesketh would in no way affect the concentration of his players.
Whereas certain clubs might gladly cherish tasting five consecutive wins for the first time in two years in all its glory, it would be wildly optimistic of United’s Champions League competitors to think that van Gaal is entirely happy with the level of performance during that winning sequence.
Marouane Fellaini was fortunate not to be given the hook following a hugely disappointing opening 45 minutes. His wayward pass led to Graziano Pelle’s equalizer, but they were all guilty of conceding possession in dangerous areas.
It is not to say that going into the festive programme on the back of 15 points out of 15 is papering over the cracks, and one suspects that a squad that was struck by its 42nd injury of the season when Chris Smalling departed holding his groin will be stretched to the limit by a relentless Christmas fixture list.
But with Ashley Young again showing his willingness to buy into the van Gaal way by operating with conviction not for the first time as a makeshift left-back, van Persie seemingly happy once more and the promise of more spending to come in January, there is gathering belief at Old Trafford that the worst of United’s troubles this season are firmly behind them.