First, there was a brilliant jink and calm finish. Then, there was a finish of such cool that the goal seemed certain several seconds before the ball nestled against the net. This was Anthony Martial’s day. The 19-year-old, having scored a sensational goal on his league debut last week, followed up with a brilliant double to energize a bland United performance and transform a game it had seemed to be losing into a 3-2 victory on Sunday.
United’s other bit of deadline day business also contributed, David De Gea, who United somehow failed to sell to Real Madrid as the clock ticked down, making an astonishing save to preserve United’s lead at 2-1. History says that there comes a moment when players assimilate Louis van Gaal’s process and everything suddenly clicks. It hasn’t happened yet for United and, frankly, looks a long way from happening. This was a win rooted in the excellence of two individuals and yet, for all the doubts and all the frustration with a style of play that at times still seems inhibited, United finds itself two points off the top of the league.
”I am very happy that with three matches, Martial has adapted to the system and he has three goals,” Van Gaal said of the young forward. ”That’s the most important thing of a striker, that he scores goals. He can improve, he has a high level of talent and he shows it under great pressure.”
Article continues below ...
The game settled into a familiar rhythm, not just for United but for the Premier League as a while this season. United dominated possession, but it was the team playing on the counter-attack that looked by far the more incisive. Dusan Tadic had already dragged a shot just wide after neat interplay with Sadio Mane when Pelle gave Southampton the lead. Mane found James Ward-Prowse in space on the right – behind Marcos Rojo who replaced Luke Shaw – and although David De Gea produced a remarkable reaction block as Mane met his cross on the volley, the ball fell for Pelle, who played for AZ when it won the Dutch league under Van Gaal, to knock in.
Three minutes later, it was very nearly 2-0. Oriol Romeu laid in Pelle, who turned Daley Blind only for his low shot to hit the post and bounce to safety – the seventh time the Italian has hit the post since the start of last season, more than anybody else in the Premier League.
For much of the first half, United was static, endlessly playing the ball down one flank, checking back, playing it round the back four and trying again on the other side, patient to the point of sterility. There was perhaps a sense that it had staunched the flow of Southampton thrusts as the half wore on, but it was still something of a surprise when it pulled level – and, almost inevitably, it came not from anything planned, from part of Van Gaal’s process but from a lucky bounce.
Southampton looked to have cleared the danger when Morgan Schneiderlin headed the ball back towards the box. Juan Mata was marginally offside but was allowed to run on and square it for Martial, who showed great composure to skip by Virgil van Dijk and then push the ball past Maarten Stekelenburg. That jolted United into action and it finished the half the better side, raising once again the question of just why it had played so within itself for the bulk of the half.
That goal was fortuitous, and United’s second, five minutes into the second half, was a gift, albeit one that was accepted with another superb finish as Martial ran on to Maya Yoshida’s weak backpass and slipped the ball calmly into the bottom corner. It had taken the £36 million ($55 million) signing just 76 minutes of playing time to make himself United’s leading league goalscorer this season.
”We lost belief in the game after the second goal,” Koeman said. ”I hate players who play the ball back to the goalkeeper. Play the ball in the space, in front.”
That brought little calm or sense of control, though. United still looked vulnerable defensively, and it took a quite brilliant save from De Gea to keep out a Fonte header from a Tadic corner. With the ball seemingly past him – the crowd had begun to cheer – the keeper somehow flicked out a left arm and scooped the ball back into play.
But the belief about United made it dangerous as Southampton took the initiative and it could play on the break. The decisive third came on 68 minutes, Bastian Schweinsteiger, on as a second half substitute for Michael Carrick – who has started six games this season; each of the six United has won – feeding Memphis Depay, who turned inside Fonte. His shot struck the post, but bounced back for Juan Mata to knock in the rebound. That, perhaps, was a goal of Van Gaal’s conception: there had been 45 passes, the vast majority sideways, in the creation of the opening.
Pelle headed a second from Mane’s cross with five minutes to go, prompting a late flurry in which United was distinctly uncomfortable, De Gea making another excellent save to claw away a Victor Wanyama drive. It was far from comfortable but between them, De Gea and Martial did just enough.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.