The play would have been hilarious if we hadn’t come to expect it from Manchester United’s defense, but after the comical sequence that gifted Southampton Wednesday’s opening goal, all we could do is shrug, grin, and say “That’s our United.” At this point, we’re all laughed out. The same gags are falling flat. Horrible, inexplicable mistakes like the ones committed today by Michael Carrick and David de Gea have become too common.
Yet within 24 minutes of the Red Devils letting Jay Rodriguez put them one down at home, they were back in front, two clinically executed goals leaving England’s leaders to play out the next 63 minutes for a 2-1 win. Combined with yesterday’s Manchester City draw at last place Queens Park Rangers, Manchester United have a seven-point lead in England and are on pace for 94 points.
They’re also on pace for 49 goals allowed. It would be the worst defensive record for a Premier League champion, and it’s one of the reasons why all their mastering of the Premiership will mean little next month against Real Madrid. The likely winners of the Premier League — forever flawed, but forever fabulous — will go into next month’s Round of 16 tie underdogs to Spain’s third place team.
In the third minute at Old Trafford, United’s defending reached news level of farce. A ball plated in from Saints’ left met a poor touch from Carrick, who put the ball past his defense. The United midfielder ran down the ball but under hit his pass back to de Gea, allowing Rodriguez to beat the keeper to the ball. Instead of laying out to try to smother the ball at the Saint’s feet, de Gea hopped in the air, a seemingly panicking response to being left exposed. The Southampton attacker dribbled around de Gea and put the ball into and empty goal from the edge of the six-yard box.
The lead didn’t last long. A beautiful ball chipped over the defense by Shinji Kagawa in the eighth minute allowed Wayne Rooney to finished the give-and-go into the left-side netting. Nineteen minutes later, a Robin van Persie restart saw Patrice Evra head across the six to give Rooney an easy second goal.
The rest of the game played out in typical Manchester United fashion. Were they in control? Who can tell with United? They can allow goals at any time, though today they didn’t. Throughout the rest of the match, they gave as good as they got in terms of chances, even if there was the typical air of cautious inevitability that hovered over the final half-hour.
It looked like United’s going to win. It seemed so improbable that the league’s first place team playing at home would capitulate of a relegation-embattled side. But who dared walk away from their screen? Did anybody honestly believe United couldn’t be freakishly breeched at any moment?
There’s only one thing you can trust with Manchester United. Where the minute-to-minute of their existence defies predictability, the aggregate always ends near the top of the league. Most years, they take the medals. Some games are dull, others dominant, others inexplicable, but it’s a rare year when you collected all 38 results and United’s anywhere but the top two.
Still flawed, still fabulous, United notched another unpredictable win on Wednesday, but predictably, they increased their lead in England.