Belfast Telegraph

Louis van Gaal tactically undone by Koeman as Southampton snatch win over Manchester United

Man United 0 - Southampton 1

By Ian Herbert

Ronald Koeman smiled, paused and soaked up the sweetest of questions. He and Louis van Gaal were old very foes so had the man with the superiority complex, whose side had just been beaten, proved willing to engage in conversation with him? "I was very happy," he replied, answering a different question. "We shake hands and that was enough. It was a good feeling."

The Southampton manager, remember, was head coach at Ajax when Van Gaal, the then technical director, took him aside to discuss his performance. Koeman had just won his second Dutch title at the time.

"I don't know if you've read my contract, but the only person I have to justify myself to is the general manager," Koeman told him. Their relationship has never been the same since.

Koeman would be happy to have the conversation last night. The scoreline provides a piece of history - Southampton's first win here in 27 years - which makes it tempting to talk about another chink in the armour of the one-time fortress old Trafford. But Southampton climb above United, into third place, on merit - because he won the tactical battle and also have a very fine defence - a rather under-appreciated quality these days.

Van Gaal went for a three-man defence against one of the prime exponents of the system; a manager who rightly observed that it took the pace out of the home team and who knew that he could staunch United's threat by pushing tight on their wing backs and squeezing the life out of Michael Carrick.

The result returns us to that sense of unknowing about how far along the journey United actually are under Van Gaal. He has the same number of points as David Moyes did at the same stage, after a less than average arrival into the New Year: three points from nine. United's delivery from wide was poor.

Angel di Maria was unable to stamp anything like a £59.7m quality on this match on his return from a six-week absence. It was an afternoon that called for that stroke of genius - the injection of the unexpected - because there is a reason why they have conceded four fewer goals than any other team in the Premier League.

United's own defence also looked more solid, though Koeman's side were able to pounce on its solitary moment of indecision, thanks to Dusan Tadic. He slid the pass of the match to Graziano Pelle and was ready to take the ball back when it rebounded of the upright after 72 minutes, and strike it home.

There had been some initial powers of self-expression in Van Gaal's attack-minded line-up and Robin van Persie's early exuberance made up for the absence yet again of Radamel Falcao, on whom United's £20m outlay including £265,000-a-week wages looks more questionable by the week. Behind Van Gaal's long exposition on the subject was that perennial sense that he does not care much for the player.

But the flashes of United class - a magisterial pass from Michael Carrick chested down and levered up for Phil Jones who took it over the dead ball line - were occasional. Even the early blow of Toby Alderweireld's early departure after overstretching a left leg to cut out a pass for Di Maria didn't stop Southampton cutting out United's threat.

There was just no decisive forward United pass.

United looked again for intensity after the interval. An innovative Van Persie overhead kick pass sent Di Maria running into the left hand side of the area but Gardos was his equal. When Di Maria materialised on the opposite flank, whipping a low cross with pace and power into the six-yard box, Rooney could not connect. Van Persie's booking, for swinging a foot at the Southampton captain as he shielded possession, revealed the mounting frustration and he departed with an injury.

The goal arrived 10 minutes later and with both Van Persie and di Maria gone and Mata spurning three late chances, United did not look like coming back. Van Gaal deflected away all questions and engaged in his usual routine of implying that his inquisitors are all stupid. But he knew he had been intellectually defeated. His ego will be bruised as much as Koeman's is buoyed.

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph