Manchester United defeated newly promoted Southampton 2-1 in a nervy game that, on another day, may well have ended with less than all three points staying in Manchester.
Sir Alex started an attacking line-up with Kagawa and Welbeck wide left and right respectively, supporting Rooney and Van Persie up front. Carrick and Anderson marshalled the rest of midfield, infront of a back four of Evra, Vidic, Smalling and Jones. Pleasingly, De Gea kept his place in net once again.
In contrast to their fantastic early start against Fulham in the cup last weekend, United this time fell victim to an early goal from Jay Rodriguez. An awkward backpass from Carrick left De Gea with no choice but to attempt to come for the ball with his feet, allowing Rodriguez to knock the ball past him and into the empty net – a calamitous start that riled some of the crowd as if the mix-up had been perpetrated on purpose. This was the twelfth time United had conceded first in the league this year, and is a clear indication that it’s an improvement in the attack, masking defensive deficiencies that has the Reds ahead of their points total from this time last year.
United were soon back on level terms however as Kagawa, who despite playing out of position on the wing, looked like is beginning to find his feet with both the pace and physicality of this league, threaded a long ball through to Rooney who slotted it past the on-rushing Artur Boruc.
The Red Devils kept up the pressure and went ahead in the 27th minute as van Persie swung a free kick right onto Patrice Evra’s head. The Frenchman headed back across goal to an unmarked Rooney who tapped it home from a few yards out. The goal was the definition of simplicity, mixed in with some careless marking.
Welbeck, Van Persie and Kagawa all had further chances before half time, but couldn’t convert leaving the game delicately balanced at the break. There was no doubt United were playing the better football, but as the game against Spurs last week proved, 90+ minutes of concentration would be needed to make sure of maximum points.
The second half was a strange mix of terribly off-form play from United, and increasing levels of self belief from Southampton. In truth nearly almost every player in red must have misplaced a pass or two during the second 45, and it was as if the ghost of the Spurs game was looming large.
Credit to the visitors, they pushed up well, perhaps sensing that United were there for the taking and created a few good chances in the second half, most notably a Ricky Lambert free kick that De Gea pushed wide.
Sir Alex waited until the 63rd minute to make his first substitution, Ferdinand for Smalling, with a probable eye on steading the defence. Anderson soon followed (as is customary after 70ish mins) with Rafael entering the fold, and Jones pushing up to midfield. 3 minutes later Nani came on for Kagawa and United had their brightest spell for the whole second half culminating in a headed goal for Robin van Persie which was adjudged to be offside.
With depressing familiarity as the half wore on, United sunk deeper and deeper, playing into the hands of Southampton who had nothing to lose by throwing as many men forward as possible. Having seen cross-town rivals City only manage a draw at bottom of the league QPR last night, the importance of extending their lead to 7 points was known to players and fans alike and so the atmosphere became more tense with every misplaced pass or foul.
Whilst it may be fair to say that the fans could expect United to be able to play their way out from under so much pressure from a newly promoted side, i sometimes get a sense from the stands that any mistake from any of our players must be punished with a torrent of abuse. Indeed, an increasingly vocal contingent of the Old Trafford crowd appear so spoiled by success that the thought of Southampton getting anything from the game is like a personal insult. Some would do well to remember that mistakes do happen, and they’re almost never deliberate. The label of ‘supporter’ cannot, in its most literal sense, by applied to some of the inhabitants of the Theatre of Dreams which is both a shame for them and the players they watch every week.
United saw out the game without any of the previous weekends late drama and were so rewarded with a 7 point lead atop the league with 14 games to go. As mentioned in Sir Alex’s programme notes tonight, complacency must now become the watchword if the red half of Manchester is to celebrate a record 20th top tier title in May.