Robin van Persie netted a brace to secure a fifth win on the trot for Manchester United against Southampton.
The Red Devils might be in sparkling form, but this was far from a champagne performance.
United recorded only three shots for the game – all from van Persie – with two of them finding the back of the net.
It is the stat that perhaps best sums up the United performance with Louis van Gaal’s side proving just about good enough on the night.
The United manager opted to return to a 3-5-2 system fielding a back three of Paddy McNair, Chris Smalling and Marcos Rojo, with Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young occupying the wing-back positions.
Michael Carrick started in midfield alongside Juan Mata and Marouane Fellaini, with Wayne Rooney and van Persie up front.
United found themselves 1-0 up after just 12 minutes when Jose Fonte’s loose back-pass only found van Persie, who made no mistake from a narrow angle to slot the ball home at the far post.
The goal failed to galvanise United though and soon the Red Devils were chasing shadows.
Southampton moved the ball around nicely and some shakey defending only made problems worse for United, whose defenders regularly failed to clear their lines.
The loss of Chris Smalling to a groin injury did not help matters and when van Gaal was forced to also withdraw a clearly struggling Paddy McNair to steady the ship United was looking particularly poor.
The Saints got a deserved equaliser through Graziano Pelle before the break to send the teams into half-time level at 1-1.
The second half was similar.
Rooney struggled to get involved in the game while Fellaini was careless in possession.
Carrick was a rare stand out, moving the ball around the park well, with van Persie a reliable target.
Despite the team’s performance, van Persie got his just rewards for a fine individual effort when he latched onto the end of a long-range free-kick from Rooney.
In typical style van Persie got the slightest, but most brilliant, of touches on the ball and directed it home from a tight angle.
It was enough to see United over the line, but van Gaal was not proud enough to admit the Saints played the better football on the night.
The only chances Southampton created were when we lost the ball, and that was not good. We needed confidence on the ball, which we didn’t have, and I said something about that at half-time. I think we were better in the second half but Southampton [still] played better than us.
“Our first goal was a gift and the second was made easier because I saw the goalkeeper coming out of his goal. We were very lucky. I didn’t see the confidence that I saw on the training ground earlier this week. We trained very well this week, and I did not see it on the match day — that is the most important time to show yourself.
“We didn’t give a lot away in the second half, maybe four chances, but Southampton were the better team. We were the lucky team.”
“When you are the better team then you deserve more, but believe me that it’s always the goals that are counted. [When we] played the first six or seven matches, we never won but were always the better team — I never said anything about that.”