It was not a great look when Edinson Cavani spent the first 26 seconds of the second half doing up his boots on the sideline as Manchester United set about turning around a 2-0 deficit to Southampton. Among United’s problems, untied laces feature quite low down on the list but speak of the basics they are struggling to get right.
What followed, though, was a salvo from the Uruguayan that preached the benefit of going when you are good and ready. For it was the 33-year-old who turned the game on its head, assisting Bruno Fernandes, scoring the equaliser – his second league goal for the club – and then stooping low for his third to grab the winner in the 92nd minute. In a week when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer lent on the power of nostalgia, talking up the glory of old as a blueprint for the present, here was a comeback Sir Alex Ferguson sides would have been proud of.
His introduction did not just heighten United’s threat up top but made them more engaging all over the pitch. Ralph Hassenhutl will be wondering how on earth his side, seven games unbeaten as one of the form sides in the division, let such a lead slide and with seemingly little power to stop it.
Once again it was James Ward-Prowse as the architect of Southampton’s success, making dead balls come to life twice in the opening 33 minutes. The first was a corner fired in at the near post that Jan Bednarek helped into the net. The second was direct and just as deadly, whipping in his ninth direct free kick in the Premier League – only David Beckham, with 18, has more – and one which compounded the opposition’s misery as David de Gea was injured in his unsuccessful attempt to keep it out. The Spaniard was replaced at half-time by Dean Henderson.
The play leading up to the game’s opening goal was scratchy, in part down to both teams setting up with respect for the other.
Manchester United’s midfield four of Bruno Fernandes, Fred, Nemanja Matic and Donny van de Beek (making his first Premier League start) set up in a box between midfield and defence to give Southampton’s free-wheeling wide men Stuart Armstrong and Moussa Djenepo a reason to look over their shoulders. Similarly, Hassenhutl’s side tempered how they attacked, especially in transition, knowing United’s primary attacking threat is on the counter. With Anthony Martial missing out after picking up an illness overnight, Mason Greenwood, also making his first league start of the season, would be the one to carry that threat up top with Marcus Rashford.
It should have been Greenwood who grabbed the game’s first goal, racing on to a through ball from Alex Telles beyond the defence to take it beyond goalkeeper Alex McCarthy only to finish into the side-netting. He’d get another chance later on – this one to make it 1-1 – when McCarthy’s dreadful pass out found Greenwood 20 yards out with an uninhibited route to goal. A rasping left-footed strike was parried by McCarthy who truly made amends with a world-class follow-up save, up off the ground and then fully outstretched to his right to prevent Fernandes from equalising.
McCarthy would add to his tally early in the second half, standing tall to wear a strike from Rashford that should have been better placed, especially with Cavani staring at an open goal to his right. The Uruguayan, who replaced Greenwood, immediately offered a greater threat on the right wing, and it was here he crossed for Fernandes, who controlled the ball dead and swept it past the keeper to finally get United on the scoreboard.
Roles were reversed on 74 minutes when Fernandes own shot caught a deflection or two and was met by Cavani, who pre-empted something that meant charging into the box was worthwhile. The ricochets off red-and-white shirts presented the ball perfectly for a diving header.
When the winner arrived – and it always felt like it was going to come, and it always felt it was going to be Cavani – it was amid a period when Southampton felt like they had done just enough. But with their legs on, and minds frazzled, it was left to the fittest and brightest on the pitch to complete the turnaround.
Rashford found space on the left to check onto his right foot and whip into the near post where, for the umpteenth time, Cavani had gambled and come up trumps. The ball skimmed off the top of the dome and into the net to complete the turnaround and cap-off the ultimate cameo.
As it happens, Cavani became only the second player to be involved in three Premier League goals after coming on at half-time. The first? His manager against Nottingham Forest in February 1999. Evoking to old times may be old hat and might speak of Solskjaer's limitations. But, as we add “St Mary's, November 2020” to the list of his marquee results, he certainly does it well.
This weekend get a £10 free bet with Betfair, when you bet £10 on a Same Game Multi on the Premier League. Terms: Min £10 Same Game Multi bet on any EPL match this Fri - Sun. Free bet valid for 72 hours, awarded at bet settlement. Excludes cashed out bets. T&Cs apply.