It was a game that did not really promise goals, and it definitely delivered on that. Manchester United stumbled to a 1-0 win over Southampton as Jose Mourinho’s side made it five wins from six in the league.
Southampton, on the other hand, were consigned to their second defeat of the season as Mauricio Pellegrino’s side fell foul of Romelu Lukaku’s first-half goal.
The game offered very little in the way of goals, but there were chances for the hosts who, on another day, could have scored a number of goals. For United, a better team will surely punish them if they are that bad again.
Here are the five things we learned from this afternoon’s game:
Mkhitaryan is growing into United’s most influential player
The loss of Paul Pogba was always going to leave a huge hole in Manchester United’s midfield. Both defensively, with his large figure and powerful presence, and offensively, with his vision and technical ability, Mourinho’s side have been lacking a kind of arrogance in the middle.
While Armenian Henrikh Mkhitaryan doesn’t supply that cocky attitude, he does give United a very intelligent and creative player at the point of their midfield. His clever movement across the middle of the park meant that Southampton struggled to track him allowing the midfielder to find pockets of space to exploit.
He is also forging a very effective partnership with Romelu Lukaku. The Belgian was the target of a number of long-balls from the back and, when he was able to knock the ball down, Mkhitaryan was there to pick up the ball and drive at Southampton.
His passing range was also superb as he set United on the front foot constantly, be it through a sharp short pass or a raking long-range ball. The pain of Pogba’s absence has clearly been dulled by the former Borussia Dortmund man that is beginning to show why people in Germany rated him so highly.
Manchester United’s midfield show their strengths and weaknesses
Jose Mourinho’s midfield last season was lacklustre and it was targeted by teams that looked to get at United and ruffle their feathers. This season, the signing of Nemanja Matic has proved to be the foundation of the team with the rest of the midfield rotating around him and Paul Pogba.
Upon the latter’s injury, Marouane Fellaini has enjoyed more time in the team and he has looked good. His physicality and combative style give United a bite in midfield, while Matic provides a calming influence on and off the ball as he once again pulled the strings in the first-half.
However, they did also show their weaknesses today. When put under a lot of pressure in the second-half they gave the ball away far too easily which only led to more pressure being applied onto their defence. Fortunately for Mourinho’s side, Southampton were unable to take advantage, but Matic and Fellaini must find a way to keep the ball and relieve the pressure in games where they are under immense strain. Indeed, Mourinho’s side registered just 39% possession across 90 minutes as they struggled to keep their feet on the ball, something that will surely need to be improved upon.
Jose Mourinho is making Marcus Rashford and Phil Jones better all-around players
Two real bright spots for Manchester United on the day were the continued improvement of two of their players. First is the ascendance of Marcus Rashford. The forward is an incredibly talented player that can score and create goals and he became an integral part of Mourinho’s side last year.
This season though, Rashford is showing another side of his game. He was constantly seen tracking back on the left-flank to provide cover for his teammates. Indeed, few would claim that Ashley Young is the best of defenders, while he has lost a step of pace over the years too. When he was outnumbered or lost the ball, Rashford could be seen racing down the line to provide a covering challenge to win the ball or at least hold-up the attacker.
Second is defender Phil Jones. The centre-half was once the butt of all of the jokes and lost his place in the side and, honestly, it seemed as though his time as a defender for Manchester United was coming to an end. However, following an injury to Marcos Rojo and Chris Smalling’s dip in form, Jones has become a mainstay at the back next to Eric Bailly.
Be it a cross, long ball, one-on-one or a covering situation, Jones was everywhere on Saturday. In fact, he was the best player on the pitch across the 90 minutes as United needed a man to lead them, and he did exactly that. Mourinho is obviously having an effect on the team as a whole, but his managerial ability and man management are making both Rashford and Jones far better players. With this title race shaping up to be an incredibly tight one, United will need two of their most improved players to continue their upward trend.
The second-half was Southampton’s
When Southampton’s fans look back at the game, they will know that they should have made more of their second-half showing. They pressed United all over the pitch on the day and suffocated the visitors of possession which meant that United were eternally on the back-foot.
After their awful first-half showing in a season so far in which they have been very poor going forward, the Saints displayed just how creative they can be with the ball. In total, they had 14 shots of which four were on target. Defensive-midfielder Oriol Romeu was the wrong man in the right place as he spurned two glorious chances to get Southampton level. While Southampton’s profligacy in front of goal continues, the fans will take heart from the fact that they are now creating more chances.
However, for now anyway, this means very little. Southampton have eight points from a possible 18, and they need to find a way to get the ball in the back of the net more often.
Saints must find their identity
Southampton’s transfer policy over the last few years has seen their team connected to a revolving door as their best talent is poached by other teams. This summer they were far stronger with their players as they refused to allow a mass exodus. This has seen them add to what was a good squad last season, and it should also have enabled them to evolve as a team.
However, things are not quite that simple. Mauricio Pellegrino has not had much time with his squad having only been installed earlier in the summer, but his side are clearly lacking an identity. They were toothless in the first-half as United easily dealt with the small threat they posed. In the second-half, they looked far better as they utilised the wings more where Nathan Redmond and Dusan Tadic provided some attacking flair out wide.
Unfortunately for Southampton though, Shane Long was dominated by United’s defence and he seemed on the back-foot constantly as he was rarely in the box when crosses came in. Manolo Gabbiadini came on, as did Charlie Austin and there was a physical threat in the box, albeit one which was not utilised. Tactically, Pellegrino must decide whether he wants to make his team keep the ball and beat their opponents by passing, have a quick forward that runs in behind the opposition, or play balls in from the wing which a striker can get on the end of. It felt like Southampton were trying to do all three styles in the game, with the players at times on completely different wavelengths.
Southampton: Forster 7 – Soares 6 (Ward-Prowse 5), Yoshida 6, Hoedt 6, Bertrand 6.5 – Davis 6 (Gabbiadini 6), Romeu 5 – Redmond 7, Lemina 5, Tadic 6.5 – Long 5 (Austin 5).
Unused subs: McCarthy, Van Dijk, Hojbjerg, Pied.
Manchester United: De Gea 6 – Valencia 6.5, Jones 8, Bailly 7, Young 6 – Fellaini 6, Matic 7 – Mata 6 (Herrera 6), Mkhitaryan 7 (Smalling 6), Rashford 7.5 (Blind N/A) – Lukaku 6.5.
Unused subs: Romero, Carrick, Lingard, Martial.
Referee: Craig Pawson