For a brief moment or two, as Bruno Fernandes headed for the corner flag to celebrate scoring the only goal of the game, Manchester United seemed one big happy family and it was easy to forget about the abominations of only a couple of weeks ago or the “Glazers out” chants that preceded kick-off.
Fernandes found the corner of the Southampton goal with a cunning volley and was soon on the receiving end of a hug from Cristiano Ronaldo, warming up on the sidelines, and Casemiro, who made his debut as a late substitute. The club captain, Harry Maguire, again left on the bench, rose from the away dugout to applaud. Erik ten Hag punched the air in delight.
It was fraught and the Southampton substitute Sékou Mara ensured panic in six minutes of second-half stoppage time but United held on to earn successive Premier League victories and a first away win since February.
Somehow United did not score on 19 minutes when they peppered the Southampton goal. First Fernandes miscued a header from a Diogo Dalot cross under pressure from Kyle Walker-Peters and from there another barmy few seconds in the times of United ensued. The Southampton goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu hurried to his near post to deny Anthony Elanga, who at least managed to keep the ball alive. Fernandes swiped at goal but his volley smacked a despairing Walker-Peters in the face and then Armel Bella-Kotchap flung himself at Christian Eriksen’s low shot, the ball cannoning off his shin. Eriksen threw his right hand into the air in resignation.
United did not exactly overpower Southampton, who will wonder themselves how they did not get on the scoresheet. Che Adams flicked on James Ward-Prowse’s corner but an overstretching Bella-Kotchap could only toe-poke over the bar with his left foot after taking a heavy touch to control the ball with his right.
Ralph Hasenhüttl soared from his seat in anticipation only to crash back down a moment later. Mohamed Elyounoussi picked out Adams with a fine reverse pass but the in-form Southampton striker, who had scored four goals in his previous two games, equally failed to adjust his feet. In the second half Adams appealed for handball against Scott McTominay but saw penalty claims dismissed.
Bella-Kotchap, a 20-year-old defender signed from Bochum this summer, made another superb intervention early the second half when United accelerated upfield and Elanga played a give-and-go with Fernandes. But just as Elanga pulled his left foot back to shoot Bella-Kotchap nipped in to snaffle the ball without a trace.
United were hardly incoherent but the machine fully clicked when Fernandes struck three minutes later at the end of a sweeping move. It started with a roaming Raphaël Varane dribbling upfield before passing the baton on to Elanga on halfway. Elanga dribbled inside and located Jadon Sancho, who quickly spread play wide to Dalot. His first-time cross from the right was sumptuous and Fernandes applied an expert finish to match.