SOUTHAMPTON 1, MANCHESTER UNITED 2
Jose Fonte mistake gifts Robin Van Persie the opening goal
Chris Smalling limps off; Graziano Pelle equalises.
Ander Herrera is Van Gaal’s second first half sub as United struggled to cope
Van Persie finishes Rooney’s free kick to hand United
David De Gea with two excellent saves to further frustrate Southampton
For all the pre-match talk of two feuding Dutch managers it was a Dutch striker who stole the points for Manchester United as they recorded their fifth straight win in a row to go third in the Barclays Premier League, leap-frogging Southampton and West Ham.
United struck early through Robin Van Persie and broke the deadlock again in the second half through the Dutch striker after Graziano Pelle had ended his goal drought by levelling for a wasteful Southampton side in the first half.
Saints boss Ronald Koeman will regret glaring second half misses by Shane Long and wayward finishing by Graziano Pelle after the dust settles on another poor United performance in which the points were preserved by two superb saves by David De Gea.
Paddy McNair and Wayne Rooney returned at the expense of James Wilson and Ander Herrera as Manchester United returned to a three man defensive back line, with Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia given more license to attack either side of Marcos Rojo, Chris Smalling and teenage defender McNair.
Rooney returned to captain the side against the Saints but it was his strike partner Robin Van Persie who broke the deadlock at St Marys after just 12 minutes when Jose Fonte’s poor backpass allowed the Dutchman to steal through and thread the ball neatly through Fraser Forster’s legs.
There was little time to celebrate before the United injury curse struck again, however, and Johnny Evans had to be introduced back into the fray for the first time since the 5-3 defeat at Leicester when the luckless Chris Smalling limped off with what looked like a groin injury after just 16 minutes while challenging for the ball with Pelle.
Evans had to be on his form when he denied Sadio Mane a chance on goal after 25 minutes with a clearance after a mistake by McNair.
United were living on their wits during the first half at times at Southampton pressed for an equaliser, letting themselves down with the quality of their chances.
It seemed only a matter of time before the Saints punished United’s poor first half though, and Steven Davis was allowed to race through gaps in the United defence after Valencia gave the ball away, and this time Pelle made no mistake from close range in the 31st minute.
It was Pelle’s 10th goal of the season for Southampton but his first since a double at Stoke in October in the Capital One Cup.
Van Gaal had seen enough and soon hooked Paddy McNair after just 39 minutes, replacing him with Ander Herrera while Michael Carrick slotted into defence as United struggled to meet with Louis Van Gaal’s tactical expectations.
United almost conceded again in added time when Pelle’s mishit shot almost fell nicely for Shane Long but the Irishman wasn’t expecting it and the Reds were let off the hook once again.
Long should have given Saints the lead again early in the second half. David De Gea, and not for the first time this season, saved United after Dusan Tadic’s cross left him a glorious chance.
And Pelle should have capitalised on more defensive slackness again from punch-drunk United, who continued to give the Saints every chance to score such was their generosity in midfield, this time the Italian’s shot was over the bar before the hour mark after another ball from Tadic.
Wayne Rooney’s free kick was finished off by Van Persie as United punished the lack of killer instinct from the home side for only his sixth domestic goal of the season after 71 minutes.
De Gea once again came to United’s rescue with a brilliant one-handed save in the 78th minute when he used his left hand to stop another chance from Pelle.
Southampton continued to press and Nathaniel Clyne and Victor Wanyama shot wide but were increasingly frustrated and Mane was booked for a needlessly late and very poor tackle on Van Persie as United held on for the points.