Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 19 October 2019

Juan Mata reflects on 'painful draw' after Manchester United spurn chances to win at Southampton

Daniel James' superb opener was cancelled out by a Jannik Vestergaard header at St Mary's Stadium

The surprised "ooh" from the Southampton fans when the board went up to indicate four more minutes showed how the game against Manchester United was going.

The two scoreboards read 1-1, but all the play had been with United since Kevin Danso was sent off for a second yellow card following a reckless lunge on 73 minutes.

As United’s defence pushed forward and created chances which none of their attackers could convert, the home fans were nervous. They had played Liverpool and Manchester United in their opening home league games and felt unlucky to lose to Liverpool.

They didn’t want the same against United, a glamorous opponent but one which Southampton failed to sell out for the first time in memory. Their season ticket holders were invited to buy up to four extra tickets on the eve of the game.

Their side had done well to get into the match, but with four minutes left, nerves frayed with every United attack. Behind the goal where United needed to score to register a first away win since March 6, 3,000 away fans shouted their team forward.

This was United’s turn to get back on top of a game they had dominated and taken the lead in spectacular fashion during the first half as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men chased a first away win in 11 games. That is another haunting statistic about United’s form.

Solskjaer’s side had won their first nine on the road when he took charge, but his honeymoon period ended in March and his team are struggling. They have won only two games in all competitions since that stirring Uefa Champions League win at Paris Saint-Germain.

United needed a similar late charge against a Southampton, who had played well for the first five minutes but, missing their best player Nathan Redmond, lacked confidence, especially up front.

United weren’t vintage – they didn’t need to be since Southampton didn’t have a single shot on goal until their goal, a header from Jannik Vestergaard after the No 4 rose above Victor Lindelof in the 57th minute, but they needed a winner, especially against 10 men. It did not come.

“We need to be more ruthless and we have to kill games earlier,” said Juan Mata, who made his first start of the season and justified his selection with an impressive first half performance.

With Daniel James encouraged by Mata to go tight on the touchline and Cedric Soares unsure how to handle him, United found space on the left with James stretching the play and cutting inside on his right.

Mata’s decoy made the space for James to cut in and drive United ahead after 10 minutes with his third league goal in four games. “James will tear you apart,” sang United fans, reworking their old Ryan Giggs song.

Mata may have hit a feeble shot across Angus Gunn’s goal after 31 minutes but he created three goalscoring chances, more than any other player. He dropped into space left by James Ward-Prowse in Southampton’s 4-2-2-2 formation. His lofted pass set up Marcus Rashford, his experience led him to direct and encourage.

“That’s what I try to do,” he told The National. A top United side would have been three up, but this isn’t a top United side. Rashford, the non-prolific striker, missed a header from close range. He had other chances.

Asked if it felt like another defeat, Mata replied: “It feels like a painful draw.” He did not cut an optimistic figure after the game, none of the United players did.

“We need to win games because we’re Manchester United,” said Mata. “When we don’t win then the pressure increases more. There is no time, we have to win now.”

Like his team, Mata faded at the start of the second half and he was off the pitch when United finished strongly but a winner continued to elude them.

United have dropped seven points from four games. A win at Southampton would have put a far more positive hue on the start to the season, a draw in a match they should have won is is deflating. No matter how you play, one win from four isn’t sufficient for a club like Manchester United.

Updated: August 31, 2019 09:31 PM

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