Southampton's late heroics flip the switch on United a year on

In what would be Sir Alex Ferguson’s final season in charge of Manchester United, it was a game against Southampton that completely changed the narrative.

In his 1,000th game in charge of the Manchester club, his side was staring down a defeat at St. Marys. Despite taking the lead, his midfield had been overrun and was now a goal down. Compounded on that, Robin Van Persie’s attempted panenka of a penalty had gone embarrassingly wrong.

But the Dutch striker would make amends. With a swing of his boot, they were level and with a nod of his head, United took the lead in the dying minutes. It completely exemplified United and Ferguson’s innate fighting spirit. The character rose supreme and the belief re-invigorated.

Up until then, there had still been a sense that Manchester City was still the superior club in England. So too was the sense that Ferguson’s spending on a striker against the more required midfielder was going to be a gamble that would not pay off. On that day in September, the stars would re-align in United’s favour.

It set the template for the rest of the Premier League season. United would win these sort of games – van Persie would score those sort of definitive goals.

That mood it seems has changed in reverse considering United’s draw at Old Trafford to Southampton on Saturday.

In the first season in 26 years at United without Sir Alex, the uncertainty seems to be giving way to predictability. The aura of strong character and unparalleled desire is no longer there. Fear of what lies at the Theatre of Dreams seems to have given way to boldness for opposition visitors.

It seemed all too predictable. This was the game meant to re-enforce an air of superiority. The fading class of last season’s champions had to respond to two consecutive Premier League defeats. With an international break in between to set their minds thinking, United seemed to have found the right formula. That was certainly the case as van Persie gave the Red Devils the lead.

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Instead of kicking on however, United seemed to stagnate. Not particularly dour, but not particularly exciting as well. United have never been ones to stretch the imagination with their creativity. But under David Moyes, they have at times looked incredibly devoid of attacking ideas.

Thus they did not push home the advantage. As thus, the latter minutes of the match saw them come under growing pressure from the Saints. At the same time, Moyes seemed to be prepared to hold on to what he had. Bringing on the experience of Ryan Giggs, the solidity of Chris Smalling and the functionality of Danny Welbeck indicated that the one goal lead was enough.

But it would be Southampton who would equalise with minutes remaining. As such, it completely changed the narrative and pointed to the finer margins that underscore the game. Hold on and it would have been the result required – of resilience and determination. That they did not, it places further pressure on the man who took on the impossible mantle of replacing Ferguson.

For the pressure keeps mounting because previous results are not in his favour. An existing fan base has been used to countless victories and proud performances. So few of those exist in the Moyes era that questions as to whether he is the right man continue to linger.

At the same time, Southampton will feel buoyed. If that game last season changed the narrative for United, it continued a recurring one for the Saints. By then, they had played wonderful football but succumbed to quality opposition not only of United but of City as well. It thus would be a theme – no matter how well they played, they just could not condition enough wins. By the end of the season, they were scraping to avoid been dragged into a relegation dogfight.

Things are different now however. An impressive start has already seen them defeat Liverpool at Anfield. Earning a point at Old Trafford will further enhance their belief.

But it is the story of the red ship that is seemingly taking in water that will continue to form the headlines. The transition away from probably the greatest manager in the game’s history is proving to be tough. Sir Alex himself gave the command that the United faithful should stand by their new manager.

Results such as these will continue making that a tough command to follow. As much as the United faithful will want to honour it, they will continue asking just how long these sort of performances will continue. Furthermore, how crucial they could be to their title hopes.

Therefore, if Moyes does not succeed this season, then this game against Southampton may just prove to be definitive turning point.

image: © Paolo Camera

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