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Scott McTominay may have been summoned more in desperation than inspiration. Erik ten Hag had already tried four other substitutes, with precious little impact. He had taken off Marcus Rashford, for the third game in a row. He had brought off a defender for a striker. He had hauled Casemiro off at half-time.
And then, in the 87th minute, in a last throw of the dice, he swapped his remaining defensive midfielders. Exit Sofyan Amrabat, enter McTominay. It may prove the best substitution Ten Hag will ever make as United manager.
Because, 10 minutes later, McTominay was charging, his teammates frantically trying to catch him as Old Trafford, perhaps preparing the boos, erupted. Like a one-man Sheringham and Solskjaer, McTominay had scored twice in injury-time, transforming defeat into victory, a potential mutiny into jubilation.
When ignominy and misery beckoned, United instead had McTominay, a man on a mission.
It may breach the Trades Description Act to brand him a defensive midfielder here. He spent much of his cameo haring into the box, running with purposeful potency. It was under pressure from McTominay that Nathan Collins put the ball in his own net for a goal that was disallowed because Martial was offside. No matter.
When Thomas Strakosha, the second-choice goalkeeper who United barely tested for much of his Premier League debut, parried Diogo Dalot’s shot, McTominay was the predator in the box who was on hand to finish.
When Bruno Fernandes’ free kick was headed on by Harry Maguire, McTominay anticipated it and planted his header past Strakosha. His goals have been more frequent for Scotland than United of late but Fergie Time became McTominay Time.
Just in time for Ten Hag, too. This was shaping up as a week of three consecutive defeats in eminently winnable games. United still have not lost three successive home games since 1962 and Brentford have not won at Old Trafford since 1937, but each run came perilously close to ending. United could scarcely complain if they had, either.
Brentford were responsible for arguably the lowest point of Ten Hag’s reign, the 4-0 shellacking in his second game. Yet a loss here, a seventh in 11 games at the start of the season, may have been a new low for a club who find ways to plumb depths.
Results can change much, from a mood to a season, but they should not camouflage everything.
Defeat was desperately cruel to Brentford. They looked better coached, with more of a gameplan. United scarcely pressed, and when they did it was individually. Ten Hag can talk of togetherness, but United looked like a rabble; with a starting 11 who cost around £400m, an expensive rabble who were rescued by a player who cost nothing, in an academy product.
Minutes from a landmark result, Brentford instead could reflect on what might have been. In different ways, Brentford have lost arguably their three most important players from last season, in the departed David Raya, the injured Rico Henry and the suspended Ivan Toney. It meant United should not complain about the loss of Raphael Varane, which meant they were without six sidelined defenders.
It nevertheless produced a teamsheet with a difference. The Leicester retro centre-back partnership of Harry Maguire and Jonny Evans were reunited; against the rather quicker Brentford strike duo of Yoane Wissa and Bryan Mbeumo, the 35-year-old Evans sometimes backed off so far he was in a different postcode. Victor Lindelof switched to left-back and stalked down the tunnel when substituted.
He was culpable when Brentford led, but one of many. If errors have been a common denominator in goals United have conceded this season, there have rarely been more in one goal, as though a lowlights reel had been spliced together: first Casemiro gave the ball away, then he slid in a failed attempt to regain it. Lindelof failed to clear Wissa’s low pass – as did Casemiro – and Andre Onana should have saved Mathias Jensen’s shot.
Thereafter, United could at least be grateful that Onana denied Neal Maupay and that Diogo Dalot cleared off the line from Christian Norgaard.
For United, Fernandes at least injected urgency. Alejandro Garnacho brought more verve than Rashford. And yet a comeback was not seriously threatened until, with only Donny van de Beek, Facundo Pellistri, Hannibal Mejbri and Altay Bayindir left on the bench and the Brentford fans suggesting he may be sacked in the morning, Ten Hag turned to McTominay.
It may be an exaggeration to brand it his Mark Robins moment – he was not on the brink – but once again, a youth-team product came to a beleaguered manager’s aid.
And if the performance showed the flaws in this United team, the win brought respite in a torrid time.