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Five things we’ve learnt from Saints vs United

Southampton-v-Manchester-United-Premier-LeagueIt wasn’t pretty, in fact it was downright horrendous and dull, as dull as United had been in years. But it was also a fifth consecutive win, the second in a row away from home and achieved against a side that, at least for the time being, is a direct rival for a top four finish.

Apart from the result and an outstanding away support there wasn’t much to save from United’s 2-1 win at Southampton, though here’s five things we have learnt from Monday night.

1) United can still win “ugly”

Last season, United looked totally incapable of getting a result when the odds were stacked against them. Under Louis Van Gaal, things are beginning to look rather different, as United clinched a second consecutive away win courtesy of a performance that was even worse than the one they had delivered at the Emirates two weeks ago.

Against Southampton, United had three attempts, scoring from both their shots on target, and 48% of possession against the hosts’ 15 attempts and 52% of possession and still managed to grind out a win. Of course, for a team lacking a solid back four relying on a “smash and grab” approach is extremely risky and United are yet to produce two convincing performances in a row, which is what we all expected when Van Gaal arrived.

The upside is that United are winning football games and that when they’ll eventually click we could be in for some fun.

2) Three isn’t the magic number

Whether Van Gaal chooses to deploy a three-man defence out of necessity given his options in that department are limited or whether he does out of sheer stubbornness remains to be seen, but the experiment should have been binned a long time ago.

On the south coast, United started with Marcos Rojo, Paddy McNair and Chris Smalling at the back, with the latter lasting just over 15 minutes after becoming the latest injury casualty, while McNair was withdrew by Van Gaal who looked determined to spare his defender a nightmare after a torrid 39 minutes.

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In theory at least, having Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young as full-backs should have pinned Nathaniel Clyne and Ryan Bertrand back, thus limiting their offensive contribution. Things, however, didn’t work out as planned and United’s defense was at sea for large parts of the game, faring marginally better once Michael Carrick was deployed as centre-back, when Van Gaal briefly reverted to a diamond four in midfield.

However, with Carrick operating from a deeper role, United were starved of their best passer of the ball in midfield and it showed as the Reds were disjointed and spent the second half chasing shadows, as their back four seemed to become a back five when one between Young and Valencia dropped deeper.

It might go against his philosophy, but Van Gaal should stick the three-man defense on a shelf until he’s adequate enough personnel to carry out his instructions.

3) Welcome back, Robin

It hasn’t been the easiest of seasons for Robin Van Persie. The Dutchman was expected to hit the ground running under Van Gaal but has instead suffered from a severe lack of form and has arguably kept his place in the side only because of Radamel Falcao’s lack of fitness.  A goal against Hull looked to have slightly boosted RVP’s confidence and the Dutchman produced his best performance of the season last night, showing what United had missed this season.

His two finishes, both made to look a lot easier than they were, highlighted not only how dangerous the former Arsenal man can still be but also how crucial a figure he can be for United, particularly in games where chances are at a premium.

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However, it was Van Persie’s all around play that stole the eye. Despite being largely isolated up-front, RVP held the ball up brilliantly, doing his best to involve Wayne Rooney – who looked rusty after missing out against Stoke – Juan Mata and Ander Herrera. If the Dutchman keeps playing the way he did on Monday night, United might have turned a corner.

4) Time to give Young some credit

Ashley Young will never top a popularity contest among Manchester United fans but it is time we give him some credit. As his teammates made Southampton look like Barcelona and played with all the composure of a university students who’s spent a day on the ale – which, truth be told, could also apply to many of those who were in the away end last night – Young diligently covered blades of grass on the left and ventured on the occasional foray forward.

The former Villa man perhaps isn’t a long-term solution in the role, but his workmanlike approach since he was introduced to replace Luke Shaw at Arsenal has won him a few admirers.

Further up on the pitch, Young was an overpaid winger trying too hard to impress. In his current role, he’s a player playing out of position and making a fist of it, exactly the sort of attitude United fans want to see.

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5) Give me five

The performances might have been terrible, but three points are in the bag as is fifth consecutive win – the first time United have put together such a run since March 2013 – which puts the Reds in the third place, their highest ever league position since the opening day of last season.

United have conceded just three times in their last five games and will go into Sunday’s game against Liverpool with a feeling of growing confidence in their ranks. Beating Liverpool on Sunday is imperative, for all the obvious reasons as well as to put last season’s humiliation behind, as United must return to the familiar habit of beating direct rivals.

Special mention to the away end last night: It was cold, it was a Monday night and the trip back was a nightmare. But the rendition of Louis Van Gaal’s Red Army was exactly what supporting this football club is all about. Here’s hoping it’ll become a soundtrack to a successful season.