All of the talk coming into tonight’s game was the relationship between Louis van Gaal and Ronald Koeman, as the Premier League welcomed its first Dutch managerial head-to-head. The latter will end the evening satisfied with the performance of his charges, but the former, as frustrated as he will undoubtedly be after a poor Manchester United performance, will be grateful for the intervention of another countryman, as Robin van Persie grabbed a brace of goals to push their winning streak to five. It was a poor night’s football from United, but this durability on show, despite being thoroughly outplayed is becoming a handy hallmark of this season.
The starting line-up didn’t exactly scream ‘pace’, but it certainly looked capable of far more than the insipid first half display it offered. Southampton looked unbowed from those successive defeats to Manchester City and Arsenal, but a number of instances of loose possession or poor final product let United of the hook on several occasions in the opening period. Indeed, the opening goal came from the visitors’ first and only shot on target of the half, after Jose Fonte inadvertently played in Robin van Persie, with the Dutchman calmly sliding the ball under the advancing Fraser Foster’s leg inside the opening 15 minutes.
But even with the lead, United were lifeless. The goal was quickly followed by an injury to Chris Smalling, thrusting Jonny Evans into the fray which saw an unfamiliar backline undermined further. Yet the entire side were lackadaisical in possession, frequently finding a red-striped shirt or open space with their passing and failing to put the home side under any pressure worthy of note. Southampton’s sustained prodding eventually turned into a deserved equaliser, but even that owed a debt to Marouane Fellaini’s loose pass in the middle of the pitch. Steven Davis gobbled up the loose ball and after a deflection in the box, Graziano Pelle reacted quickest to lift the ball into the roof of the net. A terrible Paddy McNair touch shortly after almost allowed Shane Long to give his side the lead, but for his wayward shot, yet the established tone for the evening was set; United were there to be got at.
Lessons were hardly learnt after the break, with Long again allowed a clear view at goal with a close-range header but firing at De Gea. All of the momentum was with the home side; they looked purposeful in possession and pressed and harried their opponents incessantly when they were without the ball. United simply couldn’t cope with it, and failed to find any flow, so when Van Persie met Wayne Rooney’s deep curling free kick and flicked in the visitors’ second, the surprise was palpable. Foster was caught flat-footed, and allowed the Dutchman to fire between his legs again with a casual tap leaving a bad taste in St. Mary’s collective mouth. Pelle might have drawn his side level for the second time shortly after had De Gea not parried his close-range effort after Victor Wanyama had played him in.
That was as close as the home side came to parity. Nathaniel Clyne drilled a low strike wide, and Saido Mane should have seen red for scything down Van Persie late on, but United stood relatively firm as the clock ticked down and a fifth successive victory came into view. Van Gaal was predictably unhappy with his side’s performance, but his United side, despite their deficiencies, have developed a taste for winning tight matches in an ugly fashion. It’s not perfect, and this evening did not make for pretty viewing, but a league table that features United in the top three for the first time in 18 months certainly does.