Twice in a week Manchester United has come from behind to win. Twice Sir Alex Ferguson’s side has displayed a level of ineptitude that threatened defeat. Indeed, much like United’s tie with Blackpool at Bloomfield Road on Tuesday, Ferguson’s outfit was second best for much of today’s FA Cup Fourth round tie with Southampton.
Yet, with a will-to-win that is second to none and two second-half goals from Michael Owen and Javier Hernández, United qualified for the fifth round for the eight time in the past nine years.
Ferguson can take little heart from his team’s performance though despite the win, with several fringe first team players covering themselves in very little glory. Southampton manager Nigel Adkins, by contrast, will rue the energy that ebbed away from his side in the last half an hour of an absorbing cup tie.
“The first half we struggled all the way through it,” said United assistant manager Mike Phelan.
“The played extremely well and the system they used was working to plan. Our system wasn’t. We changed it a little bit at half time and then we tried to make amends in the second half by introducing a couple of new players.
“We’ve played players who are not getting as many games as we’d like to give them and we tinkered a little bit with the formation, which is unusual for us. The difference was the formation change – it changed the game.”
Ferguson though contributed to United’s first-half malaise, selecting for the second time in the week, a side devoid of balance and width. With Owen in an unfamiliar role behind strikers Gabriel Obertan and Hernández, and Darron Gibson making another strong case for permanent exclusion from the squad, United’s play was sloppy, casual and shapeless for much of the opening hour.
Southampton played with greater confidence from the start, but with rumoured United transfer target Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain struggling to impose on United’s unfamiliar back-four and début goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard, the home side was restricted to long-range free kicks.
But United rarely threatened save for Owen’s miscued cross that hit corner of post and bar, and another speculative effort from the former Liverpool striker that flew wide.
Indeed, the home side always looked the most threatening and Richard Chaplow took full advantage of Jonny Evans’ poor clearance and Chris Smalling’s hesitancy to lash past Lindegaard on the stroke of half-time. The stunning finish reward for Southampton’s bright play.
Little changed in the opening minutes of the second period, as United struggled to find any rhythm and the hosts sought a second. The Saints left-back Dan Harding almost doubled the advantage, toe-poking a shot wide after a stunning run through United’s defence.
It was enough for Ferguson, who hauled off the ineffective Gibson and Anderson for Ryan Giggs and Nani, finally offering the width United had lacked for an hour. Those supporters of a crueller disposition might argue the former pair saw an hour more than necessary.
And the changes paid almost immediate dividends as United injected both pace and width into the game. First Nani crossed for Owen to poke wide from close range before Obertan delivered for the striker’s equaliser. There was a touch of fortune to United’s goal though, with the Frenchman’s crossing hitting Danny Seaborne and sitting up for Owen to head home on 65 minutes.
Ten minutes later and United sealed the win as Giggs, influential once again, intercepted Ryan Dickson’s pass and played in Hernández to strike home his second goal in a week.
“Obviously they played well, they’re flying high in their division, and always in FA Cups – no matter what standard you’re playing against – it’s always really tough for sort of 45 minutes or an hour,” said goalscorer Owen, who scored his tenth goal for the club.
“Inevitably, you know, the better quality – and it’s not fitness, obviously they’ve got to run more to keep up with us in many ways and then they tire – and it’s often the way that the better teams come good in the last half hour.”
That United was the better team in name only for much of the matters little now; Ferguson can at least look forward to the Reds’ inclusion in Sunday’s fifth round draw ahead of Aston Villa’s visit to Old Trafford on Tuesday night.
Yet the Scot must also be concerned with his squad’s quality after Gibson, Anderson, Obertan, Smalling and Evans all disappointed. On this evidence alone Ferguson must surely wonder whether Gibson or Obertan will ever make it at the club.
No such worries about Hernández though, who continues to impress during his debut season at Old Trafford.
“He’s only had one chance and he’s scored – one chance, one goal is a tremendous ratio,” Ferguson told MUTV.
“He has great feet in and around the box and gets his shots away quickly with hardly any backlift. His workrate is fantastic and he’s always on the move.
“Sometimes we make it difficult for ourselves, but in fairness I maybe meddled with the system by trying a diamond in the middle of the pitch.
“Manchester United are used to playing with width and I think that [the system] was a problem for us. It wasn’t working at all.”
Pretty or effective it was not but a cup victory nonetheless.
Southampton – 442 – Bialkowski; Harding, Fonte, Butterfield, Seaborne; Schneiderlin, Guly (N’Guessan 79), Oxlade-Chamberlain, Barnard (Dickson 73); Chaplow (Gobern 84), Lambert.
United – 433 – Lindegaard; Fabio Da Silva (Brown 46), Smalling, Evans, O’Shea; Anderson (Nani 58), Scholes, Gibson (Giggs 58); Owen, Hernandez, Obertan.
Attendance – 28,792
Man of the Match – Ryan Giggs
Possession: Southampton 49% – 51% United
Attempts: 12 – 11
On Target: 6 – 6
Corners: 5 – 3
Fouls: 13 – 6