SOUTHAMPTON, England — Three thoughts on Manchester United’s 1-0 win over Southampton at St Mary’s in the Premier League.
1. United march on with narrow win
Manchester United remain level with Manchester City at the top of the Premier League, although this was not a win to occupy too much space in end-of-season video compilations. It was, however, the kind of victory title-chasing teams tend to eke out and, although Southampton responded well after Romelu Lukaku scored what proved to be the winner, United are picking up results in a manner that has eluded them of late. The dismissal of Jose Mourinho, who gave Craig Pawson no alternative but to remove him from the dugout when he encroached onto the pitch in added time, made no odds, and United now have a fine chance to continue their momentum at home against Crystal Palace next week.
Lukaku’s 20th-minute opener came after a bright, brisk start from both sides that brought little in the way of opportunities. When one arrived, he made it count, although his finish came at the second attempt after Fraser Forster brilliantly saved his initial header from Ashley Young’s cross. Dusan Tadic should have prevented Young from checking onto his right foot to make the chance; Wesley Hoedt might have been stronger in his defence against Lukaku, too.
The goal played into the hands of a United side equipped to counter at speed, and Marcus Rashford, lively from the beginning, came close to doubling the lead with a free kick that flew narrowly wide. Opportunities remained scarce, though, with a poor challenge from Shane Long — appearing to tread on Marouane Fellaini’s Achilles — the opening period’s only other on-pitch flashpoint. Off it, more may yet be heard about the brief return of Manchester United fans’ controversial chant about Lukaku — one that the striker had urged them to “move on” from — in the moments after his goal.
Southampton emerged sharply from the half-time break and missed a presentable chance to equalise when Oriol Romeu, presented with the opening after United had not dealt with a corner, could only screw wide from six yards. David De Gea was then required to smother an angled effort from Nathan Redmond, and Cedric Soares crossed only slightly ahead of Long. United were firmly content to operate on the break now, and in the 66th minute, they could have made the game safe when Forster foiled Lukaku with his legs.
Yet the home side continued to threaten, and Romeu came close again when, getting on the end of an intricate move that he had started, he shot narrowly past the far post from an angle. Substitute Ander Herrera missed a chance to make the game safe shortly afterward; it did not matter in the final analysis, and United can consider this a tricky hurdle cleared.
2. Lukaku’s match-winning impact is what United craved
Lukaku’s scruffy winner will not win any awards, but the more contributions like this add up, the more his summer arrival from Everton starts to look like a possible title decider. He has now scored six in as many Premier League games, and eight in eight if you count all competitions. This was, in fact, his first directly match-winning strike, but this was exactly the kind of game he was purchased to settle.
Make no mistake, United would probably have drawn this game last season. In fact, these sides’ previous meeting — in May — was turgid and goalless. This was a livelier affair, but United rarely sparkled, and as the second half progressed, they retreated deeper and deeper. It ended up being a classic case of getting the job done away from home. To make that work on a regular basis, you need a reliable goal scorer.
Mourinho will not be happy with aspects of his side’s overall performance. While looking for the counterpunch away from home is hardly a bad tactic, there were shades of recent seasons here, United dropping too deep, too soon. Fellaini and Nemanja Matic showed little presence on the ball in midfield, inviting unnecessary pressure against fairly moderate opposition. The absence of Paul Pogba clearly hurts in fixtures like this; the Frenchman gets you up the pitch, relieving pressure and perhaps adding something in attack too.
In the end, Mourinho felt obliged to opt for the safety-first option, introducing Chris Smalling midway through the second half and reverting to the three (or five) at the back system for which he has shown disdain in the past. They held out, even if he was not around to see the final whistle — but Lukaku was the man United had to thank.
3. Southampton need firepower to stave off sense of drift
This was a feisty performance by Southampton, particularly in a much-improved second half. They were competent in most areas, and there is no shame in ultimately being defeated by a more-accomplished side.
Yet for all their enthusiasm out wide and smart approach play in the middle of the pitch, there was little punch to go with it and never any clear sense that they believed they could bloody United’s noses. Mauricio Pellegrino’s reign is still young, and Southampton look nailed-on to be a comfortable midtable team, but they lack the kind of identity needed for a shot at anything better.
An obvious problem lies up front, where they have been short of presence since the departure of Graziano Pelle and looked short here. Long is an indefatigable runner but has never scored regularly enough; Manolo Gabbiadini and Charlie Austin are better finishers, but Pellegrini clearly has doubts about their ability to contribute more widely. Redmond and Tadic provide a mixture of industry and decent service from the flanks, but there was little sign here of anyone capitalising.
In other areas, there are strong blocks to build from. Mario Lemina oozed quality in midfield, just as he did at Crystal Palace the previous weekend, and the former Juventus player will only get better. Romeu, alongside him, is now 25 and fast becoming the player Chelsea once held such high hopes for. If Virgil van Dijk, again kept on the bench here, can be reintegrated for the next few months, at least after a summer of transfer speculation, the Saints should be able to play with greater defensive authority than they showed in the build-up to Lukaku’s goal.
Change is, at least, in the air. Before kick-off, the club’s new majority shareholder, Gao Jisheng, had been introduced to the home supporters. The strains of “My Way” briefly followed on the public address system. Southampton need to discover what, exactly, their way is.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.