United looked bereft of ideas, devoid of momentum and struggled to create any meaningful chances, in fact they failed to register a single shot on goal in 95 minutes and produced arguably their worst performance under Louis Van Gaal, who’s likely to come under intense scrutiny after this result.
Here’s five things we’ve learnt from Sunday.
1) Time for a change in tactics
Van Gaal’s 3-5-2 formation has come under criticism this season, for United players simply seem unable to understand what the system entails or what is asked of them. Against Southampton, the performance was all too familiar: United seeing a lot of the ball but failing to create anything with it, with players running into blind alleys, before passing the ball sideways and, eventually, surrendering possession.
There’s no doubt that Van Gaal’s philosophy is built on decades of experience and that his football knowledge is far superior to the fans’ or indeed the players’, but not only is his system not helping United, it is hampering them. The 3-5-2 formation requires pace and width, luxuries United can’t afford despite spending £150m on players last summer, and Van Gaal’s stubbornness in utilising the system forces him to deploy players out of position.
Angel Di Maria, who has been at most effective when playing through the middle, was deployed up-front against Southampton with Wayne Rooney, a striker by trade, playing in midfield. Likewise, United’s three-man defence struggled to cope with Southampton’s forwards and failed to provide any support to the two wing-backs, who were left isolated and struggled to impose themselves.
Considering the options he has available in midfield, Van Gaal could do with focusing on getting the most out of his players instead of insisting on trying to get the most out of the current system.
2) Uninspiring subs
If the starting XI was puzzling, Van Gaal’s subs were even more machiavellian with United effectively left chasing the game with just Wayne Rooney up-front. The game was crying out for Ander Herrera, but sacrificing Van Persie for a midfielder was a rather surprising move, one whose consequences were worsened as Southampton took the lead and Marouane Fellaini was introduced in place of Di Maria, with James Wilson remaining on the bench.
The Belgian did what he was asked to and played effectively as second striker, but with United struggling to deliver a decent cross in the box the aerial threat posed by Fellaini was easily stifled by Southampton. Van Gaal said that his decision to omit Radamel Falcao from the squad was due to the need of having cover for Daley Blind and Luke Shaw on the bench. It was a gamble, and it backfired spectacularly.
3) Angel feels the Saints’ wrath
Angel Di Maria’s first start since his return from injury was expected to ignite United, with the former Real Madrid man tasked with providing the offensive spark United had missed in recent weeks.
Truth couldn’t have been further away from expectations. The Argentine had 0% shot accuracy, failed to complete any of the take-ons of crosses he attempted and completed only the 60% of his passes.
Modern football might be over-reliant on statistics but there’s no denying that the Argentine had an horrendous afternoon, one which wasn’t helped by Van Gaal’s decision to deploy him up-front alongside Van Persie.
Di Maria has so far occupied a variety of roles, ranging from second striker to wing-back and while it might be premature to describe it as an issue, the fact that a talent like the Argentine doesn’t have defined role is a worrying sign,
4) United need to improve soon
The 10-game unbeaten run has come to an end and United have slipped to fourth on the table, just a point ahead of Arsenal and three points ahead of Spurs but, even more worryingly, they’ve picked up just six points in the last five games. That they’ve only scored once in the last three league games, is no coincidence either, for United look to have been found out going forward.
Teams are happy to flood the midfield and sit back, safe in the knowledge that the lack of pace in Van Gaal’s team will eventually force Rooney and Mata to drop back in search of the ball, thus leaving the two strikers isolated up-front.
All of United’s next four fixtures – QPR away, Leicester at home, West Ham away and Burnley at home – look winnable on paper, but a change of system is badly needed. If nothing else, to give opponents something to think about and start asking questions again.
5) No need to panic
Sunday’s result means that United are exactly one goal worse off than they were at this stage last season. That has prompted a knee-jerk reaction among fans and pundits alike, with many all too happy to claim Van Gaal’s project is destined to fail and that United might have as well kept David Moyes in charge.
While the numbers might make ominous reading for the time being and United are yet to get fans off their seats this season, the comparison is utterly ridiculous, for United remain on track for a top-four finish and have shown signs of improvement this season. United were dire on Sunday, but could have and should have snatched an equaliser as Juan Mata missed two glorious opportunities in the last 15 minutes, proof, if ever was needed, that there’s plenty of talent in the squad to turn things around.
Perhaps even more importantly, Van Gaal was left unsatisfied even by winning performances, while Moyes desperately looked for some solace even in defeat. That alone is a good enough reason not to feel nostalgic about last season.