anchester United continue to divide opinion, not least between the two managers prowling the technical areas at St Mary’s. Ole Gunnar Solskjær had rather optimistically posited before the game that his side were becoming more consistent. Ralph Hasenhüttl, speaking from a position higher in the table than his opponents, offered the view that with United at the moment you simply don’t know what you are going to get.
The topsy turvy 90 minutes that followed supported the Southampton manager’s argument rather than his rival’s. First United looked like losing the game from a position where they appeared capable of winning it. Then from a losing position they came up with a win that could and probably should have been even more emphatic. Edinson Cavani deserves the plaudits for the incisiveness that earned his new side the points, though with all the chances United created it was vaguely embarrassing to have to wait until the 92nd minute for a winner.
In the first quarter the home side’s only plan seemed to be to literally knock their opponents off their stride. Bruno Fernandes, Donny van de Beek and Aaron Wan-Bissaka were all fouled in rotation in the opening stages, with James Ward-Prowse picking up an early caution for clattering the Netherlands midfielder out on the United left.
The visitors were in control, and had Mason Greenwood done better with a clear early chance or Fernandes found the target instead of shaving a post they might have taken a lead and gone on to a comfortable victory. But as Sir Alex Ferguson often used to say, United never make life easy. Incredibly this version of United found themselves chasing the game well before the interval after conceding two quick goals in a 10-minute period that saw Southampton switch unexpectedly from negative to glowing positive.
While it would be easy to say Ward-Prowse’s well-known proficiency in dead-ball situations turned the United defence from commanding backline to bag of nerves, it would only be partly true. In the first half especially, or at least the bit of it where Southampton belatedly began to impose themselves, United were unable to cope with Ward-Prowse when the ball was static or Moussa Djenepo with the ball glued his feet. The Malian is clearly a confidence player and his confidence visibly grew when his side took a lead against the run of play. At one point he whistled past United’s midfield talisman Fernandes to force the visitors to face another Ward-Prowse corner.
United could probably have done better when defending the one that led to Jan Bednarek’s goal, though it would be hard to fault David de Gea or Harry Maguire when a flat cross unerringly picked out the centre-back’s head at the near post.
It was Djenepo’s jinking run that led directly to the second goal, and although Fred should have known better than to trip him on the edge of the box in an area that practically had Ward-Prowse territory stencilled on the grass, it was not clear by what other means United were going to stop him. Once Ward-Prowse had done what he does best, finding the inside of De Gea’s right-hand post and bringing the goalkeeper’s afternoon to an early conclusion in the process, Djenepo had a chance to make it three. In what might have been the game’s pivotal moment, De Gea was equal to the shot even though evidently in pain.
If Solskjær had little choice but to replace his goalkeeper at the interval it was his other half-time change that proved significant.
Cavani not only provided the cross from which Fernandes pulled the first goal back, the midfielder taking advantage of some shoddy Southampton marking to claim his sixth in four games, he headed in a close-range equaliser when a Fernandes cross deflected into his path then snaffled the classiest of stoppage-time winners from Marcus Rashford’s delightful angled invitation.
Considering what he accomplished in 45 minutes it would seem the argument about the 33-year-old’s usefulness to United is now over. As Solskjær will appreciate more than most, the Uruguayan can still finish. In a game that saw Rashford, Greenwood and Fernandes all miss presentable opportunities to wrap up the points, Cavani’s instant efficiency was what permitted United’s record-breaking sequence of away wins. The veteran striker might just have done enough to get a start next time out, even if it means benching one of the young guns in the United frontline. That is a pleasant problem for Solskjær to have to sort out, and probably easier than attaining the consistency he so desires. It turns out United are still a little all over the place, but with Cavani at least you know what you are going to get.