For all the disappointment, there is a glass-half-full reading of Manchester United’s 1-1 draw against Southampton.

Mason Greenwood is evolving into one of the better forwards in the league, capable of both sensational and ugly finishes.

Harry Maguire doesn’t need to have a good game to still be an effective centre-back (in the 76th minute, he was booked for a cynical bodycheck on Che Adams to cover his defence after a slack Aaron Wan-Bissaka got intercepted).

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men are beginning to vary their attacking set-piece routines, weaning themselves off crosses directed to Maguire and trying to tee up Paul Pogba on the back post.

United were without Raphael Varane, Edinson Cavani and Jadon Sancho in the starting line-up, and the side will have more coherent performances in their back four and front four units when those players gain full match fitness.

The glass-half-empty reading? United still need reinforcements in central midfield.

Before the 2021-22 season, Solskjaer spoke of his desire to have United competing for big trophies in April and May. It was a subtle statement of intent from the United manager, half talking up the club’s continued improvement under his stewardship and half omitting the work that still needs to be done for his team to be competing for silverware.

United’s squad has enough quality to expect a top-four place, but there is a difference between being a title contender and a title favourite. On Sunday, the difference stemmed from an erratic Fred and an ageing Nemanja Matic struggling to connect United’s play.

Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side can be a stubborn and often aggressive opponent, known for their coordinated pressing in a 4-2-2-2 shape. Southampton’s front two delight in obstructing opposition efforts to play out from the back, pressing passing channels between centre-backs and full-backs from short goal kicks.

Hasenhuttl’s wide forwards and full-backs relish double-teaming any wide player who dares to dribble into their penalty area, keen to use the touchline as an extra defender.

In central areas, Hasenhuttl’s “double six” pivot will set traps, pouncing on less confident central midfielders and working to win the ball high up the field if they take a heavy touch. Southampton have a youthful side that relies on a collective endeavour to nullify the individual brilliance of richer opponents. Time and time again on Sunday, United’s most dangerous players found themselves squeezed out and closed off in possession.

It was hoped the connective tissue between United’s attacking and defensive units could be found in Fred’s ball-winning industry and Matic’s composed passing, but both men found themselves swallowed by an energetic Southampton midfield. Fans might bemoan Jack Stephens’ robust challenge on Bruno Fernandes in the build-up to Southampton’s goal in the 30th minute — a challenge that would have likely been given as a foul last season — but United players were not switched on to subtle changes in the rulebook that allow attacking teams a greater benefit of doubt.

Adams profited from the lapse in concentration, with a quick change of feet on the edge of the box helping him avoid Fred’s attempted block and arc a low shot away from David de Gea in goal.

At half-time against Leeds United last week, Solskjaer’s men were 1-0 up and looked comfortable, pulling an opponent out of their preferred shape and ready to pounce in the resulting spaces.

At half-time against Southampton, they were a goal down and struggling to get the ball to their best-attacking outlets in space. Their average team shape from the opening 45 showed a team with ambitions to get the ball further up the field but found both Luke Shaw (No 23 below) and Wan-Bissaka (29) largely pinned back and danger men Pogba (6), Fernandes (18) and Greenwood (11), kept away from goal.

A second-half strike from Greenwood after a quick Fernandes-Pogba interchange helped spare United’s blushes, but Solskjaer’s men never quite unleashed a second-half onslaught on Southampton’s goal.

Fred had one of his lesser performances at St Mary’s but after he was replaced by Scott McTominay in the 76th minute, United lost what limited industry they had in the middle third. (That is not a slight on McTominay, who has shown signs of improvement when passing forward faster but is still dealing with niggling injury.)

United lacked a player in their pivot with either the requisite energy to go toe-to-toe with Southampton’s central midfielders: Fred made three tackles and won possession 13 times, but he lost it on 16 occasions too. Nor did they have a player with the match-reading intelligence to pass around that pressure from deep: Matic managed only 75 per cent passing accuracy on Sunday, Fred finishing with 77.5 per cent.

Southampton’s 70th-minute change of shape from a 4-2-2-2 to a 5-3-2 further smothered the life out of United, who would finish the game with a shape that looked similar to their opponents.

At their best, Solskjaer’s United are knockout artists, leaving opponents in a heap after dazzling quick combos. The issue on Sunday was Hasenhuttl’s Southampton at their peak are submission specialists, working to frustrate teams by refusing to allow their favourite moves, before applying their own special manoeuvres.

“Overall, I think we created enough chances to win it and played some decent football at times; then again we could have lost it but for a very good save from David. It’s a point from a losing position but it’s not what we wanted,” was Solskjaer’s full-time assessment.

If he wants to improve on last season, the United manager will have to find something more from his midfield, especially against more dogged opponents.

There is one final optimistic reading of Sunday’s 1-1 draw. It extended United’s away record to 27 games in a row, with 17 wins and 10 draws.

This article was originally published on The Athletic. Follow @theathletic and @theathleticuk on Twitter.

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