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Southampton’s Dusan Tadic Sinks Manchester United To Send Saints Third

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LONDON – The last time Southampton won a league match at this ground was in 1988 when Colin Clarke, a Northern Ireland international striker now aged 52, scored both goals and the Stretford End was a gaping terrace emblazoned with a Wonderfuel Gas sign.

Yet a lot of teams have buried a hoodoo at Old Trafford over the last couple of seasons. Swansea City have picked up their first win here and Newcastle their first since 1972. West Bromwich’s victory last season was their first since 1978 and Everton had not managed it since 1992.

The old place just does not scare opponents in the way it once did and Southampton – this brilliant story that could go all the way to the Champions League – are the latest to find Manchester United’s faults.

They will cherish Dusan Tadic’s second-half goal, six minutes after arriving as a substitute, but this victory was also shaped by another demonstration of why Ronald Koeman’s side have the most parsimonious defence in the top division. In the process they replaced United in third position and their supporters filled the air with gloating cries of “where have all our players gone?” which seemed a satisfying response to the common suspicion that the club would nosedive after last summer’s exodus. New heroes have arrived. They came to Manchester, Koeman said, “not afraid of the name, not afraid of the stadium”.

For United, the sudden, damp silence at the end had the feel of a reality check. Louis van Gaal has been deluded recently to talk about United being genuine title contenders but it never seemed realistic and it should startle him that a team with Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Ángel Di María and Juan Mata could be so ineffective.

Van Gaal could not even find room in his squad for Radamel Falcao, opting instead to put the teenager James Wilson on the bench. Yet when Di María was substituted and Van Persie injured the player who was brought on to go into attack was Marouane Fellaini and it suddenly looked as though United were pinning their hopes on a high ball into the box.

This was the first time since 2009 they have not managed a shot on target in a home match and their points total is the same as it was under David Moyes at the same stage last season.

Van Gaal tried his usual trick of rebounding any questions he did not like, in this case about the team’s progress, their defensive issues and general level of performance – yet they are relevant questions that deserve answers.

The worrying thing for the manager is that the lack of refinement has become a recurring theme. Yes, it was strange here to see a player of Di María’s gifts be so wasteful. Yet there is always apprehension inside Old Trafford whenever Phil Jones or Chris Smalling has to bring the ball out of defence and once again one saw the hard evidence that United have neglected this area of the team. Van Gaal will surely have noted the way Smalling charged out of defence in the moments preceding Tadic’s goal and the hole it left.

Tadic had replaced Eljero Elia after 63 minutes and it was a wonderful piece of vision from him to create the danger in the first place. It was the best pass of the game, leaving Graziano Pellè clear inside the penalty area and David de Gea badly exposed in the home goal. Pellè’s attempt came back off the post and Tadic kept his nerve to score with a controlled shot through a crowd of players.

Southampton had shown from the start they fancied their chances and were encouraged, perhaps, by a communication breakdown between Smalling and De Gea inside the opening minute. Shortly afterwards Nathaniel Clyne pinged a shot just wide and it had quickly become apparent that Southampton would play, as they have done virtually all season, with no sense of inferiority.

For the rest of the first half they did not pass the ball with enough creativity but the same applied to United for the entire match. Van Gaal was operating with his least orthodox system yet, a 3-3-2-2 wing-back formation with the fit-again Daley Blind among the centre-backs and Di María in attack with Van Persie – and Koeman said he had set out his team in the knowledge that United have “difficulties building up with three centre-halves”. Van Gaal, again, tried to deflect the question when it was put to him.

What his team really lacked was penetration in attacking areas. Southampton had lost Toby Alderweireld to an early injury but Florin Gardos seamlessly filled the gap alongside José Fonte. Clyne excelled at right-back, as did Ryan Bertrand on the other side, and this quartet made a solid case for operating with a straightforward back four. Morgan Schneiderlin and Victor Wanyama provided an extra barrier in midfield and James Ward-Prowse stayed close to Michael Carrick to subdue the home side’s best passer.

Van Gaal compared it to the corresponding fixture at St Mary’s when his team lacked any real spark but it has actually been the story for much of the season. Van Persie’s ankle injury meant Rooney left midfield to push further forward and Fellaini soon joined the attack. There were chances for an equaliser but the late onslaught that was once United’s speciality never materialised. They just are not that kind of team any more.

Man of the match Victor Wanyama (Southampton) – The Guardian

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