Man United battle back to salvage a draw, but fail to put Saints to the sword
MANCHESTER, England -- Three quick thoughts from Southampton's 2-2 Premier League draw with Manchester United at St. Mary's on Saturday.
1. United come back to earn point on mixed night
On the one hand, this was a point gained for Manchester United after a disastrous start against relegation-threatened Southampton. On the other, it does not seem enough that, having dug themselves out of a hole, they rarely threatened to swing the match decisively in their favour. Romelu Lukaku and Ander Herrera overhauled the lead Stuart Armstrong and Cedric Soares had given the hosts, but overall, this was another frustrating night for Jose Mourinho's side.
United could have scored within three minutes. The chance arose from a defensive calamity, Marcus Rashford seizing upon the ball after Alex McCarthy had air-kicked a back-pass, back-heeling it toward Lukaku. McCarthy redeemed himself, though, by blocking the striker's shot.
It proved costly. Ten minutes later, Armstrong, with a beautifully clean strike across David De Gea, put the home side ahead after smart interplay between Nathan Redmond and Michael Obafemi. The latter's final pass was superb, and United's makeshift defence had been fatally exposed.
Then it was two. Southampton seemed to take an age to line up their free kick after Rashford brought Mario Lemina down to the left of the D. It was worth the wait, Cedric floating a perfect set piece beyond De Gea and into the far corner.
United barely threatened until, out of nowhere, Lukaku got one back with an emphatic finish after Rashford had shown good strength and awareness to play him in. And, remarkably, in the 39th minute it was 2-2. Again, Rashford did brilliantly, motoring to the right byline before cutting back to Herrera to flick a smart back-heel past McCarthy.
Marouane Fellaini flashed a header wide in a less frantic start to the second period. Luke Shaw also fired off target, and Paul Pogba aimed an overhead kick straight at McCarthy. United were operating with more control now, speculative efforts from Redmond and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg offering little in response. But with 11 minutes left, De Gea acrobatically tipped over a Redmond drive after sloppy play from Pogba, and it was a reminder that, for all their improvement, the visitors' night remained on a knife edge. In the event, it was the last serious threat from either side.
2. Rashford's initiative saves United
Five minutes before shrugging off Maya Yoshida to create Lukaku's goal, Rashford had prompted derision around St. Mary's. Given a fair crack at goal from 25 yards, he had skied his shot into the car park and, at that point, United looked little better than a disjointed rabble.
But Rashford promptly took things into his own hands, and it says so much for the 21-year-old's character that he set about pulling United's evening out of the fire. Too much of their play under Mourinho has lacked spark and initiative; here, Rashford provided both in teeing up his strike partner, and then, with a breathtaking run and centre for Herrera, went one better. Put together, the moments were noteworthy simply because they showed the kind of devilment and courage United are often unable or unwilling to show.
They also continued the pattern -- one that goes far back into last season -- of sluggish openings and rousing comebacks. Taking only the past two months into account, United have eked out results against Newcastle, Chelsea, Juventus, Bournemouth and now Southampton after going at least a goal down. Their durability is laudable, but do constant salvage operations really provide a viable basis upon which to build a consistent, title-threatening team?
It does not help, admittedly, that their defence remains in flux. Here Mourinho selected Nemanja Matic and Scott McTominay either side of Phil Jones, with the rest of his centre-backs either injured or lacking match fitness. "I would like a Nemanja Vidic, but I only have a Nemanja Matic, and he's a midfield player," Mourinho bemoaned. His makeshift back line was pulled apart early on, but as Southampton ran out of steam, was secure enough in the last hour.
Rashford was replaced by Anthony Martial with 24 minutes left, to murmurs of discontent from the away end. Martial could not conjure a winner, nor could anyone else. The frustration for United was that, having completed the comeback, they could not put a vulnerable side to the sword in the second half. The chances eventually dried up, and they were left to thank Rashford -- the one player in their ranks who brimmed with determination to make things happen.
3. Saints throw Hughes a lifeline
Was this enough to give Southampton fresh impetus, and to save Mark Hughes' job? Nobody could fault their intent or endeavour here, and while a point was not enough to take them out of the bottom three, they showed enough to suggest that their manager's reign may not necessarily be ill-starred.
Hughes needed a result badly. Whether or not Southampton are looking to replace him, as reports this week suggested, his grip on the job has begun to look precarious. Until Saturday, St. Mary's had hardly been a fount of positivity under his watch, the feelgood factor of last season's escape from relegation having long disappeared and a palpable feeling of slow decline hanging around the club. They had won just once at home in 2018, and in the circumstances, it was difficult to get too excited by Hughes' prematch pledge to be "on the front foot and positive."
Yet Hughes and Southampton were as good as their word. Sometimes managers resort to the tried and trusted when in the eye of a storm; to Hughes' credit, he opted for youth and vigour, giving a Premier League debut to the 19-year-old right wing-back Yan Valery and a first top-flight start to striker Obafemi, who is just 18. His faith was justified. Obafemi had already seen a shot blocked by Jones when, showing poise beyond his years, he teed up that sweet finish from Armstrong. Valery was a prominent outlet on the right too and, in the first half hour, Saints played with an energy and confidence that belied their league position. They faded as the game went on, but Southampton retained a threat throughout.
For all the criticisms levelled at Hughes, though, attacking intent has rarely been their problem. Before this game, they sat comfortably in the league's top five for shots taken, even if their conversion rate is poor. A skittish, uneasy defence is a bigger problem, and that showed here whenever United stepped up the tempo -- particularly in the way Yoshida let Rashford brush past him. It is to their credit, though, that they did not buckle after the disappointment of conceding twice -- ensuring that Hughes surely lives to fight another day.