Five months ago, it was at St Mary’s where the curtain came down on the most spectacular of seasons for Sheffield United but, after succumbing to a seventh successive defeat, it may also prove the ignominious spot where they sustained irreparable damage in their fight for top-flight survival.
Chris Wilder will not throw in the towel any time soon – and Prince Abdullah, the club’s owner, unequivocally backed his manager on the morning of the game – but, after pulling his players off the canvas last weekend, an electric Southampton wiped the floor with a pale United, who have a solitary point to their name. No team have taken fewer than four points from their opening 12 Premier League fixtures and avoided relegation.
Southampton treated their 2,000 returning fans to a mini-masterclass in what they do so well under Ralph Hasenhüttl, harrying the visitors into mistakes, forcing them into uncomfortable pockets and then picking them off at will. United could not live with Southampton’s intensity and in the end they were fortunate to avoid a hiding, with Danny Ings and James Ward-Prowse going close to adding to Southampton’s tally.
Hasenhüttl and his players lined up before the Kingsland Stand, joining arms to bask in a seventh victory in 10 games. He then doffed his cap before bowing to supporters, back at St Mary’s for the first time since March.
“I was definitely emotional with a few tears in my eyes,” Hasenhüttl said. “We wanted to show how much we have learned during their time away. We have made some big developments. Every part of our game has improved – with and without the ball. We are famous for our pressing I think because it is always nasty to play [against] but we have added more calm and composure in every situation.”
Hasenhüttl strayed on to the pitch to celebrate when Nathan Redmond caressed a shot into the far corner of Aaron Ramsdale’s net to cap a comfortable victory seven minutes from time, after Che Adams, the former United striker, gave Southampton liftoff before Stuart Armstrong deservedly doubled the advantage.
Before the game Wilder bristled when the line of questioning turned to Adams, who left Bramall Lane for Birmingham four years ago, so it was perhaps inevitable the striker would propel Southampton to victory, opening the scoring from close range before Armstrong joined him, with the help of kind deflections off John Egan and Phil Jagielka.
Wilder made four changes but again was left to bemoan a catalogue of defensive errors. The 38-year-old Jagielka became the eldest outfield player to start a top-flight game since Paul Scholes seven years ago.
The former Southampton forward Billy Sharp, who was given a warm ovation on being substituted, started alongside Oli McBurnie, who was withdrawn moments into the second half with a shoulder injury. But, aside from Sander Berge slicing wide from the edge of the six-yard box before Adams struck, it was one-way traffic. Things do not get any easier, either, with Manchester United up next. Southampton, meanwhile, have another chance to impress when they travel to the Emirates Stadium on Wednesday to take on Arsenal.
Southampton’s opener was symptomatic of the kind of afternoon in store for Wilder; it was a tragicomedy from a United perspective. Ward-Prowse fizzed in a free-kick, which was initially cleared by Jagielka. Jannik Vestergaard and Jan Bednarek, Southampton’s mean centre-back pairing, kept the ball alive and it dropped for Adams, who freely roamed towards the front post, where he prodded in to beat Ramsdale. Egan, who headed over from a corner in the second half, had helped keep Southampton at bay but could not prevent Armstrong’s drilled shot pinballing off him en route to goal.
Wilder cussed but things went from bad to worse when the substitute Redmond cut inside George Baldock, played a neat give-and-go with Oriol Romeu, an obdurate presence in midfield, and steered home to put the gloss on another entertaining victory.
“I think they are a fabulous side and they are right up there with the best we have played this season,” Wilder said. “They are brimming with confidence.”