Austin's dream debut a nightmare for United
Manchester United 0-1 Southampton
The late Charlie Austin winner that felled Manchester United was no surprise and again shines a glaring light on the deep fissures in Louis van Gaal's side. Until the header from the 77th-minute substitute and debutant, United appeared to be heading for the seventh goalless draw of the season at their stadium and an eighth in total.
At this point cheers and boos rang around Old Trafford. The rousing stuff was for a quickened tempo, the negativity for the XI's instinct still to look for a backward or sideways pass.
This is the way under Van Gaal: the fans remain desperate to offer support but the pickings are leaner than lean. Too many of United's previous 22 Premier League outings have been the same. They lack charisma in ideas, quality and end-product. At the close of United's first defeat of the year there were jeers for Van Gaal as he walked off to the tunnel.
United's aim had been to halt Southampton's mini-renaissance of two wins on the bounce and continue their own by returning a fourth win of 2016 to make it five games unbeaten. Yet this upturn from the dark days of December (zero wins, four losses, two draws) had not occurred due to any great improvement in form. Rather Van Gaal's outfit were winning how they were previously being defeated - narrowly and unconvincingly.
The Dutchman sent out a 3-5-2 that featured Anthony Martial partnering the in-form Wayne Rooney in attack and deployed Jesse Lingard and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson at wing-back, the latter the one change - for Ashley Young - from Sunday's fortunate 1-0 victory at Liverpool.
Rooney had scored five goals in the last four games and it was the captain's mis-hit shot that opened festivities. This was after the quarter-hour and the ensuing 10 minutes featured a skied Cedric Soares effort and little else. Already, this appeared another classic Van Gaal United display. This has his team (and opposition) becoming becalmed, the quality nosediving.
Ryan Bertrand personified this when taking an age to deliver a free-kick and then banging it high into the Stretford End. Next up was Sadio Mane. He is considered a rising young star of the domestic scene and was the target of a failed United bid in the summer. Yet when the ball was pinged at him in the No 10 position it pin-balled away. Later, Mane's touch was again awol when Dusan Tadic scooped in a ball that removed the slumbering United defence but the Senegalese could not control.
As two minutes of added time was announced Lingard cut inside and let fly: the ball smacked off Ander Herrera to safety and United were heading for an 11th consecutive first half at home without scoring. This caused boos as the teams trotted off, a reflection of the ongoing disquiet at Van Gaal and his product, and when the players re-emerged cheers accompanied the replacement of Marouane Fellaini with Juan Mata.
The Spaniard is one of the many examples of the manager's eccentric decision-making. A sweetly talented trequartista, Mata is usually asked to operate as an auxiliary wide-right player. Yet on he came and slotted into the playmaking berth as Herrera dropped back.
This energised United. Suddenly Mata, Herrera, Martial and Rooney were punching holes in the visiting defence. The Van Gaal grumble about this kind of play is that it leaves the team open. So it was that Mane broke along the right and turned over a dangerous ball that needed Matteo Darmian's intervention as Shane Long hovered.
In doing so the defender suffered a suspected injured rib and was left spitting blood before being taken to hospital for treatment. The Italian was replaced by Paddy McNair and from the ensuing corner Victor Wanyama's header failed to trouble David de Gea.
At one stage McNair roved forward on a mazy run that lifted the crowd but normal service resumed when Lingard blasted a regulation cross out for a goal-kick.
Now came Austin's dream start to his Southampton career and the nightmare ending for United. This could - and should - restart the questions about Van Gaal's ability to lift United back into the rarefied air their rich tradition demands. The Dutchman continues to grasp for the X-factor that delivered success at his four previous clubs. He may be running out of time to find it.
Sunday Indo Sport