Manchester United overcame adversity, ineptness and a bit of nerves in the end to register an important 2-3 win over Southampton yesterday in the premier league. A brace from teenager Anthony Martial and a third from Juan Mata ensured that what was good about United in between a torrid opening and end of the game was enough to come away with all three points.
Twenty minutes into it and boy was it a mess! United were ponderous. Southampton were decisive. Where United were willing to give the Saints time to recover and regroup into defensive shape, their hosts were in no mood to return the favour. If United have attracted praise for being a solid defensive unit this season, the last couple of games have been anything but.
Ronald Koeman let it be known pre-match that he would get his centre- forward Pelle to target and exploit the weaknesses of Daley Blind. And boy did it work a treat! Indeed, had the Italian been fortunate enough to make it 2-0 instead of finding the base of the upright, we might have been mulling over a different result.
As it turned out United grew in stature and finished the half composed if not stronger. The equaliser might have come with a touch of more fortune given that Juan Mata was offside but it takes nothing away from the exhibition of composure and finesse of Anthony Martial. It's three goals in three games for the young Frenchman but each of those goals has been an arrogant display of coolness that cucumbers can only envy. After embarrassing Martin Skirtel before women and children at Old Trafford last week, the world's most expensive teenager twisted Virgil van Dijk inside out with a sharp drag back before slotting in the leveller.
When he was put through on goal inadvertently by Maya Yoshida, it appeared he was on hand to score his first 'straight forward' goal for United. Not this kid though. In a feign of intention after the briefest of glimpses at goal, Martial wrong-footed Marten Stekelenburg and caressed the ball casually past the Dutch goalkeeper. This was calmness personified. Certainly, few would have blamed the 19 year old if he had put his foot through the ball and missed the target. His composure belies his years and the questions are quickly changing from 'Why Manchester United paid so much for a rookie to why Olympic Lyonnais and AS Monaco did not use him more often than his appearance record suggests. Indeed, the Away fans couldn't help but offer sarcasm chanting ''What a waste of money!''
All is obviously tempered by the reality that at his age, consistency might not yet be part of his game, but my word, United dug themselves out of a hole on deadline day possibly without knowing that they did!
On the Sub-Plots
Louis van Gaal couldn't hide the big smirk on his face when he was asked about Juan Mata's goal that came on the end of no less than 45 passes. ''This confirms our philosophy,'' he said. In truth, there was little joy about United's pass and move game as Southampton successfully disrupted United's 'positional game' for much of the first half. It takes nothing away though from a well worked move that will form 90% of the Television van Gaal will watch this week.
Wayne Rooney clocked 16 hours without a premier league goal and fared probably worse than before his hamstring injury. In mitigation, his form, like for many players, takes a huge hit with injuries. Except that he was not in what we generally accept as 'form' before his injury. Statistically, his contribution was irrelevant to the game. Indeed watching Mane school United at Number 10 and watching our Number 10 was a painful experience. However, it feels like the hole behind the striker is the one position in which he can still make a huge contribution to United both in terms of scoring goals and assisting. That is obviously despite the fact that we have better Number 10s than him in the squad; but hey! Captain and all that.
Matteo Darmian was relieved of his duties midway through the game because of he had a bit of a nightmare keeping Dusan Tadic quiet. Louis van Gaal rightfully gave himself a proverbial pat on the back when he cheekily enquired from journalists whether they had seen Tadic in the second half. Credit to the Dutchman for making the change that secured the right channel but in that euphoria, it is hopped that the manager doesn't suddenly think Antonio Valencia should retain the right-back slot.
The Italian remains a candidate for signing of the summer and will undoubtedly require more bad games than one half of football to lose that status. Valencia on his part might be further along in terms of understanding the philosophy of van Gaal but his abilities as a defender are desperately limited, if only because he was never a defender in the first place.
On the Bottom Line
It wasn't as assured as we'd have liked and maybe we rode our luck more than anything but in this league of leagues, you take the win no matter what shape or circumstances it comes. We're supposedly still an unbalanced side incapable of mounting a title challenge so two points off the top of the league is not bad eh?