They move in strange waves, this lot. Up and down they go, rising and falling, flying and dying, sometimes both in the space of one game, which is what happened here. The two sides of Manchester United’s complex personality, neatly packaged in one absurd win.
For 45 minutes, they played pretty well and walked off at 2-0 down, beaten by their baffling failure to grasp the obvious risks that come with conceding set-pieces to James Ward-Prowse.
For the next 45, they dominated one of the most impressive sides in the division, scored three through the combination of Bruno Fernandes and Edinson Cavani, and threatened even more.
Edinson Cavani scored twice in the last 15 minutes to give Manchester United a 3-2 win at Southampton after being 2-0 down
Southampton had a two-goal lead at half-time thanks to goals from Jan Bednarek and a James Ward-Prowse free-kick (far left)
Cavani scored a 93rd minute winner to spark delirium among Manchester United players just moments before full-time
At times, they were very good, and at others they were some way beneath. In some respects, that is their existence in a nutshell in the seven years since the old knight left; it is certainly a tale of their 2020-21 campaign so far. But maybe a corner is being turned, given this was a fourth straight win in all competitions, and actually a club record, for it was also an eighth successive away victory in the league.
At a club of this size, distinctions such as the latter are hard won, so credit to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer for that. And so too for riding the sort of storm that had brought questions over his future as recently as November 7, when a defeat against Everton would really have brought the manure over his ankles.
But that was then, and now, with a quartet of wins of varying quality, they are picking up speed and places in the table. The question, of course, is will it last? Another false dawn, perhaps?
There have been so many this season already, games like Tottenham and Arsenal at home and Istanbul Buyuksehir away that have served as brick walls to all momentum and trust. So backing them this time, to think it will all be so different, has a naïve ring to it.
At the very least, though, United have the tools for progress. Plenty has been said about Fernandes, and here he scored his sixth in four games to set a comeback in motion after Jannik Bednarek and Ward-Prowse had put Southampton 2-0 up.
Southampton took the lead mid-way through the first-half as Bednarek headed home Ward-Prowse’s dangerous corner
Ward-Prowse then went from priovider to goalscorer as he curled home a sensational free-kick before the half-time break
The Saints captain’s free-kick flew past David de Gea (above) – who injured himself against the post trying to save it
From there, at 2-1 down, it was over to another cog of enormous capability in the United machine, as Cavani came off the bench and scored a pair of headers to win it, the second coming in stoppage time. He is an old dog at 33, but like an old heavyweight never losing his power, Cavani will never fully lose that killer touch in front of goal.
As a combination, Fernandes and Cavani turned this match, but even without their goals, United played well. Across the match, they made 15 chances and had 50 per cent possession – Southampton don’t often give up those kinds of numbers; United don’t often make them.
So a fine result indeed against a team on a run of seven games unbeaten and with three wins in four.
Bruno Fernandes (above) coverted from Cavani’s cross mid-way through the second-half to pull a goal back for United
Southampton (4-4-2): McCarthy; Walker-Peters (sub N’Lundulu 90+4), Bednarek, Vestegaard, Bertrand; Armstrong (sub Diallo 90), Romeu, Ward-Prowse, Djenepo (sub Long 72); Walcott, Adams
Subs not used: Forster, Stephens, Obafemi, Tella
Goals: Bednarek 23, Ward-Prowse 33
Manchester United (4-1-2-1-2): De Gea (sub Henderson h/t); Wan-Bissaka, Maguire, Lindelof, Telles (sub Williams 84); Matic; van de Beek, Fred; Bruno Fernandes; Greenwood (sub Cavani h/t), Rashford
Subs not used: Mata, James, Fosu-Mensah, Tuanzebe
Goals: Fernandes 59, Cavani 74, 90+3
The hints of a result were in the air from a bright start, as United controlled the opening 20 minutes, which was possibly a surprise given Solskjaer had taken the gamble of going with a diamond in midfield, with Donny van de Beek handed a first league start on the left point.
The configuration that had worked so brilliantly against Red Bull Leipzig a month ago was ineffective in United’s subsequent defeat against Arsenal and has been left on the shelf ever since. So, what to make of dusting it off against a side known for the suffocating intensity of their press?
In spite of some scepticism, it initially worked a charm. Mason Greenwood had an excellent chance inside six minutes and Fernandes also had a subsequent shot deflected wide.
At that point, it was all United, but soon Southampton’s press started to work and the midfield became theirs. Crucially, they also had Ward-Prowse. His delivery from a corner for the opening goal was brilliant for its speed and dip, with the ball dropping in the space at the near post behind Telles and in front of Marcus Rashford. Bednarek headed the finish.
Greenwood and Fernandes were both then denied in succession by excellent saves from Alex McCarthy before Fred’s sin of fouling Moussa Djenepo in range of a Ward-Prwose free-kick.
Solskjaer carried the look of a man who spent half a week warning against set-pieces inside 30 yards after Ward-Prowse whipped his shot too far right for David De Gea. To compound the problem, De Gea collided with the post and came off at the break.
That also marked the introduction of Cavani and the plot twist. After early chances for Rashford and the Uruguayan, Cavani supplied the assist for Fernandes to make it 2-1.
The roles reversed when Cavani scored his first header in re-routing a Fernandes strike. A draw would have been a good result in the context, but Cavani’s late header, and his body contortion to meet Marcus Rashford’s cross, were altogether far more special.
Cavani (above) then headed home from close-range on 74 minutes to level the scores after Fernandes’ shot was blocked
Cavani then headed home Marcus Rashford’s cross in the 93rd minute to give United victory when it looked very unlikely
Take a look below for Sportsmail’s SAM BLITZ on the minute-by-minute live EPL coverage of Saints vs Man United.