As the old adage goes, ‘Sometimes you have to take a step back to go forward.’ While it would be way too strong to suggest that Manchester United’s draw at Stoke City at the start of the month was a step back, the fact that United sacrificed a lead having originally fought back from a goal down did expose the first concerns in what had otherwise been a faultless start to the season.
United’s subsequent run of four straight victories following that stalemate have, for now, papered over those cracks. Only sterner tests will prove whether the potential fragilities of Jose Mourinho’s new look United, which has been reinforced by the signings of Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matic, will be laid bare again, or if they have really learnt from the error of their ways at the bet365 Stadium.
Saturday’s 1-0 victory at Southampton’s St. Mary’s Stadium was the first indication that United had dissected and reviewed their mistakes at the Potteries and were determined for them not to happen again. Eric Bailly and Phil Jones were the ones to blame for Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting’s goals in that game, but against Southampton they formed a cohesive and solid brick wall that stood up to every test that the opposition threw at them.
It should be noted that, while their approach play was nice, in the final third Southampton were devoid of confidence and ideas, which is unsurprising considering they have failed to score in eight out of their last nine home games, but the resolute and imposing United managed to withstand their pressure with relative comfort.
Making sure that Manchester Untied didn’t drop points in two consecutive Premier League away games was obviously of the upmost importance to Jose Mourinho. Towards the end of the game he brought on Chris Smalling with 15 minutes left to play three at centre back, and by stoppage time even that had turned into a backline of at least six.
Mourinho knows how quickly a crisis can build and derail a team. Even if United had emerged from Southampton still unbeaten, the fact they would have drawn another game of this ilk would have been leapt on and overanalysed. That’s just what happens at Old Trafford.
Of course, Saturday’s win won’t be regarded as vital if Manchester United ultimately do go on to win the Premier League. But it is one that suggests they’re constantly evolving and learning under Mourinho. It is already firmly in the past, though, and Mourinho will already have one eye on October’s games at Liverpool and with Tottenham, which will provide the first true tests of how far they have actually come.