Manchester United drew at Southampton to extend their unbeaten away run in the Premier League to match the record of Arsenal’s ‘invincible’ side; but there will be a lingering feeling that this was a match where two points were dropped, even in spite of Mason Greenwood netting an equaliser after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team fell behind.
Southampton have endured a torrid summer, losing experience at both ends of the pitch, but they have retained the set-piece danger of James Ward-Prowse – and he had a first minute effort to remind United of his presence.
United settled pretty quickly and looked lively from set-pieces themselves. From the right, Lindelof completely missed a fine opening, and the ball struck Maguire rather than the captain doing it himself – it bounced up on to the crossbar, and from the resultant scramble, Martial did well to fashion an effort on target, but it was cleared off the line.
Paul Pogba then had two chances from Luke Shaw free-kicks – the first smothered, the second a little clearer, and perhaps Pogba ought to have done better from it.
But then, having been in a position where they most definitely should have scored, United became passive, and their central area became predictable – Fred and Matic, both left-footed, were telegraphed much too often, and the hosts began to grow in confidence.
They were given a huge boost in the 30th minute when United conceded a goal of their own making. Fred was again predictable with a pass that did Fernandes no favours.
The Portuguese forward claimed a free-kick after being taken out by Stephens, but the play continued, and Che Adams was able to do what Luke Ayling did last week – take his time to get the ball set up for a shot. The hapless Fred tried to get to it, but could only deflect it – the ball went from De Gea’s right to his left, and although he did well to get to full stretch, the ball went in the corner.
United’s long unbeaten run has featured many comebacks, but their response before the break was tame, as they fashioned only a Matic chance. The tall midfielder should have done better with a header from a corner but it was straight at the goalkeeper.
Anthony Martial, given a chance to impress in the middle, was anonymous in the first period. A feature of United’s late-season performances last year was Edinson Cavani’s fantastic movement, and of course Mason Greenwood’s dynamic display last weekend was a big factor in the handsome win over Leeds. There was nothing in Martial’s performance that was remotely comparable to that kind of performance – and of course, as we know, he is not naturally that sort of player, but United are not in a position to indulge underperforming players if they want to challenge for honours.
They also need to see more from their manager – and Ole did not make any changes at half-time, whilst the hosts did, bringing on Bednarek in defence and taking off Theo Walcott in an early declaration of intent.
Ten minutes into the second half, United were level – Pogba did well in the box, and was able to touch the ball in the direction of Mason Greenwood, lurking around the penalty spot with a line of Saints defenders in front of him. His shot wasn’t clean, but probably benefitted from that, as it managed to find a way into the net.
Solskjaer’s response was to end Martial’s misery and replace him with Sancho, moving Greenwood back into the middle.
United almost scored immediately after the change – Pogba showed supreme footwork to evade three challenges but his shot from the edge of the box went just wide. Greenwood and then Fernandes went close with headers as the visitors looked to take the initiative.
As is the case, though, when United are in such mood, complacency is their biggest issue. Southampton were encouraged when Lindelof dallied on the ball and played Maguire and Shaw into a dead end which eventually came back – it should have cost the team a goal, but Armstrong was denied by a fine De Gea save.
With five minutes to go, forgotten man Jesse Lingard was brought on for the below-par Matic as Solskjaer addressed his team’s flagging momentum.
United, who won in the last minute here last year, were never likely to repeat that feat this time around, as they paid the price for their sluggish periods.
United’s draw sees them level a Premier League record with 27 away matches unbeaten, but it was the sort of performance which, if repeated, will make such a record rather pointless in the long run. There were too many familiar flaws, the sort which undermine realistic prospects of closing the gap at the top, to consider this a good result or even a positive step forward.
It’s too early in the season for doom and gloom – particularly considering that this was a point rescued from none – but the failure to turn it into three from a fixture that was favourable for United when they need to accumulate as many points in games exactly like this does come with a little concern.
Nobody should really have been surprised by Solskjaer’s sensible approach, which meant not just jettisoning Lindelof out of the team after a good performance last week, and also giving Martial a chance through the middle so Varane and Sancho could continue their gradual integration.
But there is a fine line between sensible and ruthless. Solskjaer is treading it. You can understand why he makes certain calls – but when they don’t work, like today, you have to hope he is wise to repeating the error if United are to truly push on from the steady ground he has provided.
The injury to McTominay forced Solskjaer to go with Matic and Fred but even early on it seemed as though it might have been wiser to give a chance to Van De Beek; the left-footedness made the movement of the play a little too predictable, and also helped the home side create some situations where they might force their opposing midfield into errors.
Those predictable avenues of using the ball helped Southampton get their opening goal when Fred played Fernandes into a no-win position. It was then on Solskjaer to try and fix the issue, if his players could not overcome it themselves.
It’s been too often the case that an underperforming United player has escaped because of another being worse, and so it was for Fred, who was fortunate that Martial’s poor display was deemed the greater emergency. By the time it came to make the change in the middle, which was necessary, Matic too would have been relieved it was not his number being flashed up on the board after a poor afternoon. In the end even he had to be hooked, and that meant moving Pogba from his influential role on the left.
Sancho, not given much time last week, was given just half an hour here and didn’t seem to have a defined role in the side. Perhaps as a consequence of that, his contribution was poor.
Solskjaer has promising options. He’s arguably a central midfielder away from having a team that should be stamping its name as serious contenders for the title. But even without that, they should have done better than the bi-polar performance we saw today.
The manager has to take his fair share of the blame for it. The substitutes, to a man, were decisions made to compensate by errors made in the starting selection; and by the time the last one was made, even though they were all made with positive intent, United were doing enough just to get through the match.
There is probably a selection of supporters who will give the manager the benefit of the doubt and still say this season is too premature for a title push. But it is a season where he needs to make the most of what he has and not flog a dead horse. He has to be ruthless with individuals who are not good enough. That time has come. If he is not, then he too will be a victim of the failure. It’s a line I’ve said often enough, but we are now at a critical moment. One can understand why Lindelof and Martial were given starts. One can understand why Van De Beek was not.
But the time has come to make the change. A first team with Lindelof in defence and Martial up front can not challenge for the title. Nor can one with Fred and/or Matic in midfield. These are squad players and it is not fair to give them the responsibility of being cornerstones in crucial positions when they’re not equipped for that particular role.
It’s also, then, a critical week when it comes to the ambition of the club. All can see a midfielder is needed. There are reasonably priced ones available. United have collateral with the likes of Lingard, Fred, and, if need be, Van De Beek. At this point in time it seems a bigger risk not to go for one.
De Gea 7
8 goals in his last 10 Premier League games for Mason Greenwood.
— Zakstudios (@Zakstudios3) August 22, 2021