It was just over two years ago that Manchester United changed formation and recovered from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 at Southampton in Jose Mourinho’s final month. This time they went one better.
This is not a broken United and these do not feel like the last days of the incumbent manager’s reign. United must have wondered how they trailed by two goals when they reconvened at half-time and this was as impressive as they have played in the Premier League all season.
“Keep going, boys. There’s time,” Ole Gunnar Solskjaer hollered in the 82nd minute. There was Fergie time. Their intent in searching for a winner was undeniable and their recurring impotence was cured by the expertise of Edinson Cavani. He emerged at the pause, created the first goal and scored the other two. Nobody is likely to mention him in the same breath as Falcao again.
Mason Greenwood missed his opportunity in every sense of the word with Cavani on the bench and Anthony Martial absent through illness. The teenager should have registered his first league goal since July yet missed the gap. Cavani had a split-second to adjust and arch his body to meet Bruno Fernandes’s deflected shot and guided it into the net expertly. Cavani celebrated by firing an imaginary arrow and hit bullseye twice.
United would have won more comfortably had they hit the target more often. That is not what United are famed for, though, and even with the absence of matchgoers their players greeted their triumph jubilantly at the death.
For the first time since January 2019, United have recorded four consecutive wins in regulation time. Most encouragingly for Solskjaer, it has come in response to the shambles in Istanbul and uncertainty over his position as United brace themselves for an arduous December of nine fixtures.
United were creative, probing, intense but wasteful at St Mary’s. That changed with the introduction of the wily Cavani on an afternoon he transmitted his midweek European form to these shores and Solskjaer must wonder whether the Uruguayan should have started.
That would have deprived everyone of an absorbing contest that showcased the best and worst of United. This was the quintessential pandemic-era match, teeming with chances and porous defending, lacking only a result more akin to a rugby match.
Familiar frailties cost United in the first-half and they are still vulnerable at corners and still devoid of a solution for the sniper-like accuracy of James Ward-Prowse. Those chinks in their armour were bound to be probed after another summer went by without a central defensive reinforcement; neither Harry Maguire nor Victor Lindelof were on Jan Bednarek for his opening header.
Greenwood and Fernandes squandered chances with the goal gaping at 0-0 and 1-0 and a reasonable appeal for a penalty preceded those openings. Marcus Rashford was also guilty of rustiness in front of goal at 2-0 with Cavani square yet a footballer so synonymous with selflessness turned selfish. Cavani would channel that anger constructively.
United were so impressive someone sat in the press box applauded a passage of passing even though fans are not allowed back inside stadiums until next month. Their profligacy was peppered by set-pieces conceded and Southampton had a lock-picker in Ward-Prowse’s right foot.
David de Gea started the week absolved of any blame for United’s porous defending in a season they are no longer in minus digits for goal difference and it has ended with him blameworthy for at least two goals – both from direct free-kicks. The ball shaved Bednarek’s crown inside the six-yard area but De Gea was closer to the goal line.
De Gea was forced off hurt for the first time since May 2015 and Dean Henderson faultlessly handled the first shot he faced inside three minutes. Time will tell if Henerson’s Premier League bow for United signals the changing of the guard but it has coincided with a flurry of De Gea errors and is another test of Solskjaer’s loyalty to his No.1.
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United benefited from experience at the opposite end, where Cavani created a flow of one-way traffic after the pause. Cavani was so slow in replacing Greenwood he was still adjusting his boots after his name was announced but his movement belied his 33 years and it was his cross Fernandes finished for 2-1.
Intrigue over United’s shape mounted when the club’s official website erroneously named Scott McTominay in the XI yet the Scot was still in the north-west. Solskjaer had stressed McTominay was ‘very unlikely’ to be available though he has deployed that smokescreen so often the system’s gremlins were not necessarily mischief-making.
There was a glitch with the Video Assistant Referee again when it did not check a careless challenge by Ward-Prowse on Rashford in the eighth minute. Harry Maguire was piqued enough to express his dismay to referee Jon Moss a minute later and was told to button it when an explanation was merited after Andy Robertson was penalised the previous day.
Rashford was less comfortable inside his own area, where he was blindsided by Bednarek at a Ward-Prowse corner. De Gea was beaten by a Ward-Prowse free-kick during Solskjaer’s caretaker period and there was an inevitability about the outcome when Ward-Prwose stepped up again, his laudable accuracy leaving De Gea in a crumpled heap and clutching his knee. Henderson warmed up at the pause and only disappeared to change into his match gloves.
Henderson was more voluble than Maguire and Fernandes, who added Alex Telles to his kill list with a rebuke in Portuguese. Henderson could hardly have been further away from Cavani’s canny equaliser but celebrated it louder than anyone, imploring United to seek a winning goal. They got it in Fergie time.