If that win at the Emirates was a bit strange. and it was, then this one was thoroughly bizarre. United had three attempts on goal and scored with two of them and a Southampton side that dominated possession for much of the first half came away with nothing. That they did was down partly to a remarkable never-say-die spirit within the United side, a bit of luck, a couple of Van Persie goals and a masterful personnel change from Van Gaal before half-time.
After some early sparring, United capitalised on a bad defensive error to take what proved to be a crucial lead. Rooney was beaten to the ball by Fonte, whose attempted back pass to his keeper fell woefully short and Van Persie stole in to slide the ball under Forster’s flailing body. Despite the early goal, Southampton were already serving notice that this would be a game in which United’s already thin defensive resources would be stretched, which made the sight of Chris Smalling limping off the field all the more unwelcome. Yet another defensive injury meant an earlier than expected return for Jonny Evans in a back three that had already looked vulnerable but now became decidedly shaky as first Rojo and then McNair were guilty of poor errors, the latter coming close to leading to a Southampton goal. Minutes later De Gea had to smother a shot from outside the area from Pelle.
A breakthrough seemed inevitable and it came after Fellaini gave away the ball with a careless square pass in the middle of the field. The home side surged forward in numbers and, when the ball fell to Pelle in the area, this time the striker gave De Gea no chance. Long had a chance to make it two soon after but blazed over when McNair hooked the ball into his path.
United were frankly ragged at this point and Van Gaal responded by making vital change, taking off McNair – whose inexperience was being ruthlessly exposed by Southampton’s intelligent forward play – and bringing on Herrera to allow Carrick to add his experience in defence. While it didn’t lead to United looking at all convincing, it led to an improvement in composure that made the second half a more even contest.
Another lapse from Rojo allowed Pelle a glimpse of goal again, but this time he hit his shot over the bar. At the other end, one of several fizzing crosses from Young caused panic in the Southampton defence and Young was almost instantly called into action at the other end when he steered a vicious cross from Tadic away from danger.
With Herrera adding movement to the United midfield and the defence looking more secure, United made the most of another rare chance. Ironically Rooney was complaining about play being stopped when United looked in a position to benefit from advantage being played, but there were no complaints when his free kick found Van Persie at the far post and he side-footed the ball expertly past Forster to give the Reds a lead that had not long before looked very unlikely.
Southampton came back in numbers and De Gea made an excellent save to turn away Pelle’s low shot from the left. Clyne’s shot from twenty yards was a yard right of the keeper’s left post and soon after a long-range shot from Bertrand was deflected wide. It was ultimately the best they could offer and, as the home side trooped off the pitch in an understandably despondent mood, United celebrated an unlikely fifth win on the trot and a position in the top three for the first time since we won the league. It will be said, and rightly, that United rode their luck, but while performances like this will certainly not be enough every week, part of me very much likes the look of a side who don’t seem to know when they’re beaten and, for now, three points will do nicely.