Monday 16 September 2019

Sloppy United recover but fail to find a winner

Southampton 2 Manchester United 2

Underwhelming draw: José Mourinho. Photo: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire
Underwhelming draw: José Mourinho. Photo: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire

Paul Doyle

Manchester United battled back from two goals down to salvage a draw at lowly Southampton. Having climbed back into the game, the visitors plateaued. They had reached their level and never looked like overcoming their hosts, who have still not won at home this season but produced a display to relieve some of the pressure on their manager, Mark Hughes. José Mourinho, whose team fell further towards mid-table, can expect no respite.

The paradox in the previews for this match was that both managers complained they were being singled out for criticism. But both also knew that only their teams could put forward really compelling evidence in their defence, and time to do so was running low. Hughes' side responded on cue. Mourinho's stammered before finding their voice.

In an effort to stimulate improvement, both managers had got radical with their line-ups. Hughes altered his formation and gave first Premier League starts to a pair of teenagers: 19-year-old defender Yan Valery and 18-year-old Irish striker Michael Obafemi. Scoring was a persistent problem for Southampton even before Hughes's arrival in March and with neither Manolo Gabbiadini or Charlie Austin finding the net in the Premier League so far this season, Hughes perhaps felt he had little to lose in turning to Obafemi in the absence of the injured Danny Ings.

Mourinho, meanwhile, opted against giving a Premier League debut to a teenager, leaving Diogo Dalot on the bench and deploying Ashley Young as a right wing-back. But the real intrigue in his selection was elsewhere: with only one fully fit centre-back available he nonetheless set up his team with a three-man backline, with Scott McTominay and Nemanja Matic flanking Phil Jones. Marouane Fellaini was assigned patrol duties just in front of that trio, while Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba were intended as the central conduits to a front pair of Romelu Lukaku and Marcus Rashford.

With Juan Mata, Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard relegated to the bench, it looked like Mourinho had sent out a team whose priority was to contain a side that had won only once at this venue in 2018. United's forward duo did nearly combine to open the scoring in the second minute but not because of any creativity in midfield. Instead the chance came from a blunder by Alex McCarthy, who missed the ball entirely as he attempted to clear. Rashford cleverly kept it in play with a backheel but Lukaku could not convert, McCarthy recovering to block his shot.

If Lukaku's attempted finish betrayed the lack of conviction of a striker who had not scored in his 12 previous matches, Armstrong soon produced a shot fuelled by the confidence of a player who netted twice last week at Fulham. Southampton's opening goal in the 13th minute was beautifully worked, too. Nathan Redmond went on a skilful dribble before feeding Obafemi at the edge of the area. The 18-year-old picked out Armstrong in space on the right hand side of the box and the Scot crowned the build-up with an immaculate finish, driving low into the far corner.

Southampton's Jack Stephens tackles Manchester United's Luke Shaw. Photo: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire
Southampton's Jack Stephens tackles Manchester United's Luke Shaw. Photo: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire

United got worse before they got better. In the 19th minute Rashford conceded a free-kick just outside his own area. Soares produced a finish more commonly associated with his compatriot Cristiano Ronaldo, curling over the wall and beyond the reach of David De Gea.

When United, inspired by Rashford, woke up, Southampton became dishevelled. After shrugging off a tackle by Maya Yoshida, Rashford slipped in Lukaku, who showed no hesitation this time, blasting a shot into the net from 12 yards. Six minutes later Rashford created the equaliser, dashing into the box before pulling a low cross back to the near post, where Herrera finished with an artful flick.

Fellaini went close with a header from a cross by Young in the 51st minute. But much of the play was scruffy, neither team finding fluency and both guilty of misplaced passes and misjudged tackles.

Rashford flickered for United, and Obafemi was an exception for the hosts, showing precocious composure and deft touches before being replaced by Gabbiadini after the hour. Mick McCarthy will be hoping he can deliver like that for Ireland.

Manchester United's Paul Pogba in action with Southampton's Mario Lemina. Photo: Matthew Childs/Action Images via Reuters
Manchester United's Paul Pogba in action with Southampton's Mario Lemina. Photo: Matthew Childs/Action Images via Reuters

Dalot made his introduction in the 72nd minute in place of Shaw, who had to limp off. Despite ending his drought, Lukaku generally lumbered to little effect up front, partly because of inadequate service. Neither team threatened a winner, although Redmond forced De Gea to bat a long-range shot over the bar in the 80th minute.

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