Coming into the weekend matchup, Manchester United, sitting in fourth place, played third place Southampton. Southampton was one point ahead of the Red Devils, but currently in a big slide from their early season form, with two losses and a draw in their last three matches. United were keen on taking advantage of Southampton's poor form and extending their winning streak to five games in a row.
United fielded another new compilation of players due to their serious bout with injuries, but this time they played in Van Gaal's desired 3-5-2 formation. David De Gea started in goal. Center backs Chris Smalling, Marcos Rojo, and Paddy McNair formed the three-man backline. Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia adopted left and right wingback positions, respectively. Juan Mata, Michael Carrick, and Marouane Fellaini formed the central midfield, and Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie were the front men. They faced a Southampton side, recently beleaguered with injuries as well, missing key midfielders Morgan Schneiderlin and Jack Cork.
Southampton jumped out to a wonderful start, controlling the game's tempo and a majority of the possession. The possession, however, lead to few early chances and the game remained a draw at 0-0. A lapse in their defense would prove key in the game's first offensive chance. After, a Wayne Rooney dribble was edged out by the defense, defender, Jose Fonte, played a back pass to his goalkeeper without looking to assure the pass was open. Robin Van Persie, observant of the defender's mistake, broke into a sprint, stealing the pass before it reached the keeper. With his second touch, he passed the ball through the keeper's legs and into the net. United were up 1-0 in the 12th minute. Shortly after, some worry arose for United. Chris Smalling sat down on the field, unable to continue. Jonny Evans replaced Smalling just 18 minutes into the match.
Southampton did not let the goal stymy their efforts; in fact, they set about getting an equalizer with renewed purpose. To make matters even worse for United, the new back line played even more nervous. In the 31st minute, they were rewarded. After, a dangerous dribble into the United box and deflections in front of the goal, the ball fell to Southampton forward Graziano Pelle. He drove the ball past David De Gea for the game's equalizer. The goal was David De Gea's only blemish all game as he continued his spectacular form throughout the remaining minutes, especially on another Pelle chance, which he parried wide of the goal. In the 35th minute, Paddy McNair made an error on a clearance, hitting it far short and into a dangerous position right in front of Southampton winger, Shane Long. Long sent the resulting chance far over the bar, but the mistake provided manager Louis Van Gaal enough reason to substitute the youngster a few minutes later for Ander Herrera. Herrera entered the game with several instructions to reshape the United side, including a pivotal swap of Michael Carrick from midfield to defense. The instructions were not delivered clearly and through the remainder of the first half, United played confused and extremely nervous, barely able to see the 1-1 draw through to half.
United returned more confident from the halftime, but the game's pulse was still driven by Southampton's play. They still controlled possession and the attempts to get into scoring positions. David De Gea came up big again with a tremendous save on a Shane Long header. United would need another Southampton mistake to make an imprint on the game. In the 71st minute, their moment arrived. They received a free kick for a needless foul. Wayne Rooney stood over the ball and curled a magically weighted ball toward the right post and even more, towards Robin Van Persie. He volleyed the ball with the outside of his left foot straight down in between the goalie's legs again. With that touch, United retook the lead.
De Gea faced another chance from Pelle in the 76th minute, which he repelled skillfully away from any Southampton players seeking a rebound tap-in to equalize. With some strict attention to defense, United were able to finish the game without conceding and grab the three points needed to place them in 3rd place, 5 points shy of 2nd place, and 8 shy of 1st.
United will ride high on the result of the match against Southampton, but should be cautious of their actual form in the victory. The defense and midfield looked nervous in defense and possession and their forward line got few touches as a result. Robin Van Persie turned in another sparkling performance, which could signal his return to 2012 form. David De Gea contributed another gem as goalkeeper. Paddy McNair's prompt substitution could jostle his confidence, although Van Gaal insinuates a mutual understanding between the two that it will not. United add Chris Smalling to their long list of injured players, including Ángel Di María, Luke Shaw, Daley Blind, Rafael, Phil Jones, and Jesse Lingard. Still, United must press on and continue their winning run. United will play Liverpool next in a rivalry match of the Premiership's two most historically successful teams on Sunday, December 14th. The game will be aired on NBC Sports Network at 8:30AM EST.