Manchester United served up a timely reminder that they remain a work in progress, with a ramshackle 1-1 draw away to Southampton.
After the unbridled optimism of last week’s cohesive and fluent victory over Leeds, this was a sobering display that contained many of the same frustratingly stubborn flaws that dogged Ole Gunnar Solskajer’s side last term.
United started brightly enough, dominating possession and threatening from dead balls. Within 15 minutes they’d hit the bar from a corner and fashioned a couple of half-chances for Paul Pogba and Mason Greenwood.
Buoyed by the irrepressible Pogba, it seemed a matter of time until the opening goal arrived.
However, within half an hour Southampton had started to press and harry their opponents into repeatedly committing basic errors and the momentum quickly shifted.
By this point, a creeping anxiety had slipped into the Red Devils’ haphazard back line and a lack of midfield control hinted towards difficult periods to come.
United’s defenders appeared ill-at-ease with a woeful lack of midfield protection, and Ralph Hasenhuttls’ men began to capitalise upon the anxiety rippling through their opponents’ ranks.
On the half hour, the Saints seized upon on one of countless examples of lackadaisical defending to take the lead.
Bruno Fernandes was firmly dispossessed by Jack Stephens and a neat one-two with Adam Armstrong found Che Adams in space on the edge of the area.
Although Fernandes angrily appealed against the physicality of Stephens’ tackle, the ref judged it to be fair and the goal stood.
During the remainder of the half, Solskjaer’s men threatened from dead balls but, with Anthony Martial more of a whimsical notion than a living, breathing human being, they created little from open play.
The two sides went in at half-time with the home team starting to seem like reasonable value for their lead.
United equalised early in the second half, Greenwood rolling past the stranded McCarthy after more good work from Pogba. Suddenly in the ascendancy, the stage seemed set for United’s onslaught for the three points.
But the onslaught never materialised.
Hassenhuttl’s smart substitutions swung the game back in the home side’s favour and, mirroring the opening period, the Saints finished the half – and the match – the better side.
But for De Gea’s good save from the wide open Adam Armstrong, Southampton might even have taken all three points.
By contrast, Solskjaer’s substitutions had precious little impact upon the flow of the game, coming across like a gambler desperately throwing cards down with no sense of an endgame.
A record-equalling 27 away games unbeaten then, but also further proof that Solskjaer has a lot to do before this version of United can be talked about in the same breath as some of the great sides he played in.
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