It is one thing beating Liverpool with a performance fuelled by the desperation that comes with wanting to atone for a 4-0 drubbing at Brentford and the adrenaline of playing their fiercest rivals but it is quite another trying to build on that foundation on a balmy summer afternoon on the south coast at St Mary’s. Faced with Southampton, many thought Manchester United might revert to type.
They did not. They did not win any prizes for beautiful football, either, but they dug in and they fought and they scrapped and they defended for their lives and they weathered storms and they harried and chased and when the final whistle blew on a sketchy 1-0 win, their defenders raised their arms aloft as if they believed this was a result carrying more significance than it seemed.
Time will tell but the win lifted United to the heady heights of sixth place in the Premier League and this match brought more tentative signs of recovery from the early season trauma of that humiliation in west London and their home defeat to Brighton. One of those signs was that Erik ten Hag, who can take a breath at last in his new job at Old Trafford, named the same starting eleven that beat Liverpool.
That meant Cristiano Ronaldo remained on the bench, which, frankly, is the best place for him. Ronaldo, at this stage of his fabled career, is made to be an impact substitute and that was how Ten Hag used him here. It will do the manager’s authority no harm at all to have had the courage to keep his biggest name on the sidelines and gain another victory in the process.
Everything worked for Ten Hag this afternoon. The club skipper Harry Maguire remained on the bench, too, and his replacement as captain, Bruno Fernandes, scored the winner with a fine volley that rounded off a sharp move early in the second half. There was a debut for new £70m signing Casemiro, too, and even in the short time he was on the pitch, he impressed with his energy and desire.