Exceptionally well-organised Saints steal Man Utd scalp
Southampton, guided magnificently by Ronald Koeman, schooled Manchester United with a perfect defensive performance, before snatching a memorable 1-0 victory to leapfrog their hosts into third place in the Premier League.
For the Saints, their Old Trafford triumph ends a 27 year drought in the red half of Manchester, and secures them a first Premier League-era win on United’s home turf.
Koeman’s well-drilled men made their intent clear from kick-off as Nathaniel Clyne, restored to right back after returning from injury, was the architect of his own chance following an intelligent run down the flank, but fired wide.
Saints did only have limited chances throughout the first half, preferring to hem United in, but their resilient rearguard performance, supported by an astute but surprising midfield diamond, was still something to admire.
Flying fullbacks Clyne and Ryan Bertrand pegged back the Red Devils’ wingbacks, while a deep lying and impressively composed Morgan Schneiderlin shielded the defence.
United were not without merit, dominating possession and illustrating smooth link-up play, but continually failed to break through the Saints’ backline.
It was a flurry of missed chances, including a trio of excellent opportunities placed on a plate for Juan Mata late in the second half, that cost the home team in the end.
Spain star Mata certainly needs to sharpen his scoring boots but always looked the most likely to create or net. Angel Di Maria, still lacking match fitness and out of position up top, continually made the wrong decisions, whilst Robin van Persie also cut a frustrated figure up front.
Doubts will remain over the futures of of Jonny Evans, replaced in the starting XI by midfielder Daley Blind at left centre back, and attacking pair Adnan Januzaj and Radamel Falcao, who did not even make the bench.
As the Red Devils struggled to create following the substitutions of Di Maria and Van Persie who, despite being sub par, still gave Southampton something to worry about, a moment of ingenuity from Januzaj or Falcao would not have gone amiss.
Saints skipper Fonte, meanwhile, captained his side with aplomb, continually anticipating and repelling attacks. A strong presence, the 31-year-old kept his men tightly organised, restricting space for the likes of Wayne Rooney.
Fantastic Fonte was deservedly nominated as Man of the Match, steadying the ship despite much-lauded partner Toby Alderweireld’s early departure through injury. Substitute Florin Gardos did a fine job of slotting in mid-match, highlighting just why Southampton boast the best defence in the league.
It was attacker Dusan Tadic though, who had lost his place to new loan signing Eljero Elia, that changed the game.
Saints had been relatively unadventurous, with wide striker Elia failing to make a real impact, until the Serbia star’s second half introduction. After feeding hard-working Graziano Pelle, who hit the post, the talented playmaker slotted home the rebound to give his team the lead.
United attempted to instigate a late bombardment but had to resort to pumping high balls for Marouane Felliani to knock down, such was the Saints’ assured defensive showing.
Despite the moment of panic and disorganisation that lead to United conceding, it was the Red Devils’ rearguard that performed most admirably.
Phil Jones and Chris Smalling illustrated their ability to bring the ball forward, while former Saints youngster Luke Shaw and Blind showed they can provide decent delivery from out wide.
Louis van Gaal will need to re-assess whether his favoured 3-5-2 formation is really needed at home, with predictable United’s lack of guile and imagination allowing Saints to shut them out.
No credit should be taken away from Southampton, however, who have now deservedly boosted their chances of a top four spot and Champions League football.