Phil Connors, the character played by Bill Murray in the 1993 film Groundhog Day, enjoyed more variety in his life than a Manchester United supporter. Saturday afternoon’s performance against Southampton can be safely filed under “more of the same”, with any excitement only briefly provided by the appearance of another rodent – a mouse – on the field of play.
Southampton arrived on the Old Trafford pitch in the same 3-4-2-1 configuration that had secured clean-sheets in their previous two Premier League games. Louis Van Gaal responded to this unusual challenge by selecting a back three of his own for only the second time this season, thus allowing him to pair Wayne Rooney and Anthony Martial up top in a 3-4-1-2.
Any hope that this tactical surprise would inspire an interesting contest were quickly extinguished. Both sides were guilty of misplacing several easy passes in the opening five minutes, a trend that continued to the game’s end; hosts and visitors finished the game with woefully low pass completion rates of 72% and 66% respectively.
It’s telling that the most common successful pass combination in the game was Fraser Forster to Shane Long. The long ball was very much in vogue here, much to the Irish striker’s benefit. Long competed brilliantly in the air up against his minder Chris Smalling, finishing the game with 10 successful aerial duels to Smalling’s three.
Alas for the Saints, they shared the home side’s well-renowned reluctance to encourage line-breaking runs. All of Long’s flick-ons were for nought, as Dusan Tadic and Sadio Mané remained stationary between the lines. The sole chance created in the first-half stemmed from its only forward run of note, when Mané lost his footing after a successful one-two with Tadic.
Meanwhile, Southampton’s hosts appeared equally keen to take the direct approach. The other prominent individual battle in the game saw Victor Wanyama compete with Marouane Fellaini for David De Gea’s goal kicks. Apart from receiving an unpunished elbow in the face in the 15th minute, the Kenyan more than held his own.
Fellaini was removed at half-time in favour of Juan Mata, prompting cheers of support from the Old Trafford crowd; cheers which stood in stark contrast to the loud booing of half- and full-time. That optimism looked well-founded in the 55th minute when Ander Herrera, now sitting in a deeper midfield role, fed Rooney with the kind of forward pass that United have been missing. Mata become only the second midfielder in the game to run beyond the strikers, but underhit his lay-off to Martial, causing the chance to fizzle.
However, the momentum that United looked to be building was soon extinguished by a long injury stoppage; Matteo Darmian replaced at right centre-back by Paddy McNair after a collision with Long. Koeman then began to ring the changes himself, by dropping Wanyama onto Mata and introducing Oriel Romeu and last week’s double goalscorer, James Ward-Prowse, into the midfield fray in front of the Kenyan. Sadio Mané was now in tandem with Shane Long up top.
This seemed like a potentially promising shift in approach for the Saints, with Mané now given greater licence to play on the shoulder and feed off Long’s flick-ons. Instead, it was Mané’s replacement – the debuting Charlie Austin – that would do the damage.
Austin’s 80th minute introduction, paired with the baffling 86th minute arrival of the returning Adnan Januzaj were the substitutions that ultimately decided this contest. The young Belgian instantly gave away a ridiculous free-kick in the right-back area with a completely unnecessary foul on the English striker. Austin himself powered home fellow substitute Ward-Prowse’s outswinging delivery. Another replacement, Paddy McNair, left Austin to follow the ball, presenting the former QPR hitman with a free header on a platter.
This was Southampton’s first shot on target of the game, incidentally. United had only managed one of their own – a 14th minute Daley Blind strike from range that Forster held comfortably. The Saints managed the third and final goalkeeper-testing effort in injury-time, when third-man running Oriel Romeu shot straight at De Gea after good link-up play from Austin and Long on the break.
Van Gaal, by this point, had taken a page out of Klopp’s manual by throwing Chris Smalling up top as a third striker. This desperate last throw of the dice was precisely as imaginative as Manchester United have been under his reign. All the usual boxes were ticked today; one shot on target, six successful dribbles and an 11th successive scoreless first-half on home soil. The decision to throw Januzaj on with minutes remaining for his first appearance since returning from Dortmund was utterly ridiculous in the extreme. There was insufficient time remaining for him to realistically impact United’s attacking play and his insertion into an unfamiliar wing-back role ultimately cost United the game.
Even Phil Connors eventually realised what he needed to do to break his time loop. When will the United board?