The home side appeared to be more tidy, more composed, and more dangerous, but they also don’t have Robin van Persie.
The Dutchman scored twice against the run of play and it was enough to put down Southampton at home 2-1 despite Graziano Pelle ending a 569-minute goalless drought.
Southampton held most of the early possession, but a bad mistake put them in a bad spot just 12 minutes in. Wayne Rooney got hold of a ball on the flank looking to break. His first touch was heavy, and Jose Fonte was there to clean it up. But when Fonte looked to feed his goalkeeper, the back pass was well under-struck. Robin van Persie latched onto the ball, and free on goal he beat Frasier Forster from a tight angle for the opener.
Manchester United has been marred by injury for most of the season, and it continued at St. Mary’s soon after the Red Devils took the lead. Chris Smalling went up to challenge Shane Long for a header, and when he came down he pulled up lame. That forced Louis van Gaal to bring in Jonny Evans, who has missed most of the season with a foot injury. It marked his first appearance since September 21 and just his fourth appearance of the Premier League season.
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Southampton got its first real chance on 25 minutes, when Saido Mane won the ball in the attacking half and skillfully skipped past two United defenders in the box, but a heavy touch betrayed him before he could get a shot off.
That moment marked Southampton’s true build into the ascendency, and it brought the game back level on the half-hour mark. Marouane Fellaini fed the ball right to Steven Davis on the break, and down the other end Long delivered a cross into the box. It came to Dusan Tadic who ripped a shot, and the blocked effort dropped to a perfectly placed Graziano Pelle. The Italian struck from close range, and drew the game level at 1-1 while ending his six-match scoring drought.
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The hosts nearly had another minutes later but Long’s drive flashed over the bar while Saints pressed for another. Louis van Gaal shocked many by making a tactical substitution just before halftime, using his second substitution on defender Paddy McNair, replacing him with attacking midfielder Ander Herrera. This caused Michael Carrick plenty of confusion, before eventually dropping into a back-three after some chaos.
Things devolved into a sloppy mess early in the second half, but Southampton continued to maintain all of the meaningful possession. Creative new purchase Tadic was removed on 70 minutes as he makes his way back to full fitness, and Ronald Koeman brought on 18-year-old Jake Hesketh for his professional debut.
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Unfortunately for the kid, Southampton instantly conceded. Conventional wisdom says don’t make substitutions on set-pieces, but that’s what Koeman did. A free-kick delivery from Wayne Rooney flew to the far post, and van Persie somehow raced unmarked to meet the ball and head it home for Manchester United’s lead. It’s van Persie’s seventh goal in seven matches against Southampton, and it came somewhat against the run of play.
Saints pushed for another equalizer, and Nathaniel Clyne came inches off with five minutes to go, but it wasn’t enough to overcome van Persie’s magic, and the scoreline would not budge. The win is the fifth consecutive for the Red Devils, and sends them above their opponents to third in the Premier League table. The jump drops Southampton to fifth, out of a Champions League place, and marks their third loss in a row to top competition.
Southampton: Forster, Clyne, Bertrand, Yoshida, Fonte, S. Davis, Wanyama, Mane, Tadic (Hesketh 70′), Pelle, Long (Mayuka 79′).
Goals: Pelle 31′
Manchester United: De Gea, McNair (Herrera 39′), Smalling (Evans 18′), Rojo, Valencia, Carrick, Fellaini, Young, Mata, Rooney, van Persie.
Goals: van Persie 12′, 71′