The early signs, it has to be said, were not auspicious. As the whistle blew at the start of the second half, Manchester United’s substitute was still at the side of the pitch, fiddling with his bootlaces. On the game went, with Edinson Cavani still on his haunches adjusting his footwear. And with United 2-0 down against a bold and well-organised Southampton side, this little vignette felt like a microcosm of United’s afternoon: a ragged, expensive shambles.
A little over 45 minutes later, Cavani was back on the edge of the pitch, only this time with his fists clenched in celebration and mobbed by jubilant teammates. United were 3-2 up in injury time, and Cavani’s two goals and an assist had turned the game, sending United back into the top half of the table. So what happened? How did United manage to pull yet another crucial away win out of the fire?
Perhaps there is something to be said here for instinct. Not just the instinct that gets your head on a decisive cross, or finds you a yard of space in a crowded area, but the sort of instinct that can gauge the emotional kilter of a game, that senses a changing of the weather. These are the moments when football ceases to be a game of systems and becomes a game of pure urge, and United seem to grasp these moments better than anyone else.
For tactically and structurally, there was little to distinguish these two halves. For an hour, Southampton executed their plan to the letter: shoving United off their game, moving the ball forward with speed and intelligence, maximising their set-piece opportunities. But slowly, inexorably, United seemed to work the game out. They began to make better decisions and move the ball with more precision. They began to win the ball higher up the pitch, forcing Southampton to chase them.
And so in the second minute of injury time came their reward: a set piece from Bruno Fernandes, who had been so ghostly and absent during that first half. A pinpoint cross from Marcus Rashford, who had produced so little during the game. And a supreme glancing header from Cavani, who once he had finally laced up his boots produced his best performance yet in a United shirt. Here United’s attacking trio offered an object lesson in digging deep, taking the game deep and ultimately bending it to your will.
We can quibble over how much credit Ole Gunnar Solskjær deserves for all this. There are times when the United manager’s frequent appeals to Ferguson-era nostalgia can feel a little contrived, a little theatrical. But when your team keeps pulling out late goals (14 of their 34 goals this season have come in the last 10 minutes), it feels at least legitimate to wonder if his players believe it too.
And while replacing the off-colour Mason Greenwood with a world-class striker in Cavani may feel like a no-brainer, the timing of Cavani’s introduction gave him plenty of time to adjust to the pace, work out Southampton’s defence, probe where the gaps might appear. His early touches were quite poor. But his energy and his snap, the way he hunted down possession and created space, were just what United had been lacking during those first 45 minutes.
On the hour, he picked up the ball on the right wing after good work from Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Fred, and squared for the unmarked Fernandes, who finished serenely. Now Fernandes, having looked so spooked in the first half, began to dictate. Now Solskjær advanced from the bench to the touchline, as if personally raising the stakes. Now United’s one-touch football began to click into gear. With 15 minutes left Alex McCarthy came out and failed to clear a corner. Fernandes fired in a shot from distance, deflecting and bobbling. With a gambler’s instinct, Cavani threw himself at the loose ball and diverted it into the net.
For Southampton, a painful collision with the brick wall of fate. They deservedly led through the head of Jan Bednarek and the boot of James Ward-Prowse, whose brilliant set-piece delivery was the highlight of the first half. But there was so much more to them: the thrash and the hustle, the sneaky fouls. On the touchline, Ralph Hasenhüttl barely stopped screaming all afternoon.
But this was perhaps a reminder of what they were lacking: the class and composure that wins the big moments, the quality to control games, to generate order out of chaos, to make the right calls under pressure. Finally, Fernandes took a short free-kick on the left. Rashford’s cross and Cavani’s header were both perfect. On the touchline, Hasenhüttl kicked a drinks bucket in frustration. He and Southampton had given it their all. But in the end, United had more.