That doesn’t just apply to the season and the line-up but this entire 1-0 victory over Southampton – and especially the match-winning Portuguese. United are still capable of moments, but Erik ten Hag needs to build them up into complete performances.
His team were obviously improved on Brentford but weren’t as good as against Liverpool, and there were many long passages when Ralph Hassenhuttl’s side seemed certain to get something out of the game. One of those was Joe Aribo’s close-range header after yet another United passage of play had broken down.
And what happened? David de Gea saved, and Fernandes delivered.
You couldn’t have a better indication of where United really are as a team, and why they can take encouragement as well as warning on just how much Ten Hag has to do.
One of his tasks is still likely to be to sign a goalkeeper in this window, because De Gea still won’t be able to pass from the back properly. It led to considerable trepidation within the United team, and one reason why this just couldn’t be the same as against Liverpool. Fernandes meanwhile remains erratic, an indication of how a sense of individualism still runs through this side. That was never clearer than when they tried to play through the middle, or when the dropped Cristiano Ronaldo was introduced and half-heartedly pressed. It was only when Christian Eriksen got the ball, or when debutant Casemiro came on, that there was an element of cohesion.
It still wasn’t a complete display according to Ten Hag’s ideal. But, as essential as that is in the long term, it is what he needs right now.
He needs points and momentum, and that was what his “moments players” provided.
The importance of that can’t be discounted, either, especially given how the season started.
It was classic Fernandes in that sense, and in some ways typical Fernandes.
His first half had genuinely been appalling. It was difficult to think of anything he intended that had actually come off.
One through ball was towards the corner flag, another to a Southampton chest. One simple pass to Tyrell Malacia was chipped to the full-back’s shoulder, and his biggest chance before the goal seemed to see the Portuguese completely mistime his jump.
The goal itself was another reaction to a mistake, which summed up the game, and almost perfectly describes United as a whole right now.
Take the scramble that followed from Fernandes’s header. As impressively defiant as Southampton’s defending was, United could have been so much cleaner and clinical with their numerous efforts on goal.
Anthony Elanga and Christian Eriksen both looked to just smash their efforts when a touch more efficiency might have done. Armel Bella-Kotchap had blocked brilliantly from the Danish playmaker and continued in the same fashion. He poked well over from just yards out when he only had to guide the ball past De Gea.
Che Adams arguably had a better opportunity moments earlier but didn’t even make the goalkeeper fret. The striker snatched at the ball when trying to finish after Lisandro Martinez had swiped at it when trying to clear.
It was getting to the point when someone standing up straight was going to settle the game, but Fernandes did that and more, side-footing a first-time finish right into the corner after a perceptive cutback from the impressive Diogo Dalot.
The goal was brilliantly executed, in a manner nothing he did beforehand suggested it would be.
That should be to the playmaker’s immense credit, even if criticism of him is growing.
He isn’t always the most tactically adept player. He isn’t always the most selfless. But he does persevere no matter what, and keeps trying. He doesn’t let errors affect his game, either.
Hence a finish like that after starting the game so badly.
He didn’t just correct one mistake, but several.
Ten Hag must still look at issues in this team. He wants to be much more than a “moments” side, after all. This is why he still wants at least three players in this window, including a goalkeeper, and Ajax’s Brazilian winger Antony.
The one thing that can be said is that a win like this aids confidence, which helps connection.
The irony for Southampton and Hassenhutll is that this ended up much closer to his ideal. They again look so much better than so many expected in pre-season. They’ve even unearthed more quality, especially in Bella-Kotchap and Romeo Lavia.
They just didn’t have a player of Fernandes’s individual quality.
Ten Hag now just has to find a way to make it enhance his team’s overall quality.