United can win ugly
Manchester United have developed an effervescent, ruthless attacking edge to their play this season, dispatching their opponents with a spectacular cabaret of fluid play and late goals. But Jose Mourinho will be the first to tell you that this cannot happen every week – that, at various points, you will have to suffer for your success.
And Mourinho’s men did exactly that at Saint Mary’s. Failure to preserve narrow leads was United’s kryptonite on too many occasions last season, but they showed powerful resolve in the second half against Southampton, defending as a militantly organised unit and stopping the hosts from enjoying too much space down the middle as they shut the home side out following Romelu Lukaku’s 20th minute goal – his eighth of the season.
It wasn’t pretty. And it wasn’t the United we are used to this season. But it was an example of exactly what any side challenging for the title needs to do throughout a campaign.
Phil Jones needs to stay fit
The Englishman produced a performance against Southampton that was so complete, so commanding from start to finish, that it almost served to frustrate. One cannot help but ask where United would be right now had Jones remained fit for longer throughout his United career and produced displays like this on a regular basis.
This was an afternoon where Jones took control. He was simply everywhere: heading the ball to safety, tracking runners, intercepting threaded passes, barging people over, fighting indefatigably until the final whistle blew.
Alongside Eric Bailly, it was textbook backs-against-the-wall defending. Supporters will just wonder how long it will last.
Luke Shaw has a big task ahead of him
Supporters finally got to see Shaw in action after four long months on the sidelines during their side’s 4-1 win over Burton Albion. Perhaps this was the start of the Englishman’s crusade to make the left-back slot – a murky area for Mourinho ever since Shaw injured himself against Watford last year – his own over the next few weeks.
But the clash with Southampton revealed the sheer enormity of the defender’s task. He wasn’t even included in the match-day squad whilst Matteo Darmian and Daley Blind watched on from the sidelines as Ashley Young, starting consecutive Premier League games at left-back, supplied a sumptuous cross for Lukaku’s winning goal in the first half.
And with Marcos Rojo set to come back from injury over the next couple of months, Shaw really does have his work cut out in trying to forge his way back into Mourinho’s thinking.
Fourth officials don’t like Jose Mourinho
Saint Mary’s was rocking. Southampton had been bashing on United’s door for 45 minutes and their final chance – the last throw of the dice – was set to come through a James Ward-Prowse corner. It was one of those ‘now or never’ moments.
But just as the entire move approached its crescendo, referee Craig Pawson ran over to the fourth official, spotted Jose Mourinho, and asked the Portuguese to head for the stands. United’s boss did his customary handshake routine with the Southampton bench before disappearing down the tunnel. By then, however, the tension created by that final, potentially crowning moment to the game had diffused, and the move came to nothing, sealing three points for the visitors.
Whether or not this was Mourinho’s intention will never be known. Either way, the event that led to his dismissal was absurdly insignificant.
— Simon Stone (@sistoney67) September 24, 2017
A few inches, perhaps. Mourinho had stepped over the dugout line by a few inches and that was enough for the referee to give him his marching orders. His reputation precludes him from ever dipping under the radar, it seems.
Ander Herrera will be important this season
The Spaniard has struggled for minutes for the first time under Mourinho in recent weeks, making just two starts all season (against Stoke City and Burton Albion) as Marouane Fellaini and Nemanja Matic continue to dominate the midfield.
But his services were needed in the second half: Mario Lemina was enjoying too much freedom in the middle and creating dangerous inroads. A Southampton equaliser felt as if it was getting closer, and Mourinho responded by throwing the Spaniard’s tenacious influence into the mix. Needless to say, it worked a treat.
Suddenly Southampton were forced to move the ball out wide, with Herrera affording the hosts little space to move the ball through the middle. He made six tackles in total – more than any other player despite coming on with 28 minutes left – and injected the impetus needed to get United over the line.
He may still struggle to usurp Fellaini and Matic, but he sent a big statement to his manager over what he can offer this side nonetheless.