Manchester United did not look the better for their New Year vacation, as they stumbled in their match against Southampton and ended their unbeaten streak with a 0-1 loss. Despite manager Louis van Gaal’s post match assertion that United dominated the entire time, Southampton did not look overmatched in this contest. They were strong, demonstrated a higher level of ball control and passing than perhaps was expected from them after watching some of the play at the end of the year, and took advantage when they found their opening.
United did not look poor by any stretch of the imagination. They did fail to capitalize on the opportunities up front which were created by some excellent mid-field play. Robin van Persie was not the dynamic closer in this match that he usually is, possibly owing to an ankle injury, though he has not been putting up expected numbers in recent matches prior to the injury. Marouane Fellaini and Angel di Maria were often in the right spot, but failed to finish a few too many times as well. Juan Mata continued his search to find an effective way to contribute to the attack with the current lineup, for which he continues to draw fire. Even Wayne Rooney, though he fought every second to make something happen for the club as is his defining characteristic, could not come up with a breakthrough.
It was not an overpowering Southampton attack. Their hallmark this entire season has been on the defense, and that was as strong as expected. They were able to take advantage of some out-of-position play by the United back line, however, capitalizing on the ability of their back line to create a quick counter-attack. One opportunistic shot by Dusan Tadic of a difficult rebound was all that it took to take the lead that they never relinquished. After the match, van Gaal said that the club gave the point away with their mishandling of the defense. While technically true, Tadic took advantage beautifully and does deserve credit for doing what was needed when he was in the right place at the right time. While the goal itself may not have been worth the yellow-card earning shirtless flex for the crowd, the moment for the club may have been.
With this stumble, Manchester United has allowed Southampton to claim the number three position on the table, two points ahead. There still remains a ten-point margin between the third spot and Chelsea at the top of the standings. With United facing a struggling QPR squad next match, optimism is high that this will be but a brief detour on their march toward the top spot. They will need to show a bit more of a cohesive effort if they are going to challenge Manchester City and Chelsea, but with the roster they have, it is a reachable goal. Southampton has the ball in their court. They are exceeding all expectations, but have yet to convince most that they can sustain this pace through the rest of the season. By continuing to find a way to pull matches like this one out, however, they might just leave all of the pundits with egg on their face as they dance into the Champions League.
Commentary By Jim Malone
Image courtesy of Calcio Mercato – Flickr License