As the minutes ticked by at Old Trafford, the deadlock still yet to be broken, the stage being set for Charlie Austin to score the winner on his Southampton debut against Manchester United seemed more and more inevitable.
With the game reaching a climax at Old Trafford, Austin stepped up to win the game and show exactly why Saints were so keen on signing a striker who can find that yard of space, even in a packed penalty area.
Signed from Queens Park Rangers for just £4 million, it seems incredible that a striker of Austin’s ability and record could be poached away for that kind of price – even with six months left on his contract, it makes the former Poole Town forward an absolute bargain (even if a certain Premier League chairman doesn’t agree).
The Non-League poacher turned Premier League predator has scored spectacular goals before, with his volley against Southampton for QPR last season somewhat unluckily overshadowed by Graziano Pellè’s overhead kick in the same game.
But most of the time, the goal he scored last weekend is the 26-year-old’s bread and butter. Headers after losing his marker show how clever a forward he is, and should be able to turn half-chances into goals.
It is that quality that arguably has not been at St Mary’s for a while. The three strikers to have played this season are not exactly what you would call cold-blooded and clinical in front of goal; Pellè and Shane Long can often be found guilty of not punishing the opposition enough.
Perhaps it is unfair to criticise Long at the moment as he is arguably in his biggest purple patch since arriving at St Mary’s in August 2014. Normally shoved out of his favoured striker position onto the right wing, he has been given a chance as a number nine for Koeman in recent weeks, and has taken it very well.
But questions would remain as whether the Irishman fits the lone striker role in Southampton’s preferred 4-3-3 formation, as his best games have come with a strike partner to play off in Koeman’s more pragmatic 5-3-2 system that the Dutchman is favouring at present.
Austin can do both; whether up front on his own or alongside another striker at QPR, the results remained the same, and the goals kept on coming. Supplied with crosses from the wing-backs as well as creativity from Sadio Mané and Dušan Tadić, the sharpshooter won’t be starved of bullets.
Yet arguably it is Austin’s reputation that gives him the biggest advantage. By keeping it tight, Southampton and Ronald Koeman both knew they had a match-winner on the bench to make that vital contribution.
Saints’ confidence in their new signing works the other way too; inexperienced Paddy McNair and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson would have been nervous in what seemed a mutinous atmosphere at Old Trafford, so God knows what they would have been feeling when Austin was introduced.
It is not unfair to say that buying the QPR man was a gamble. Koeman had described him as ‘too expensive’ a few weeks before, and Austin’s medical history has been scrutinised in the past, too. This was someone who Saints wouldn’t normally plump for.
But in wanting to arrest a slump of one win in ten, signing the hitman has given Saints a much needed boost and helped make it three wins on the bounce, and confidence will be even higher going into the trip to Arsenal.
The return to first team football for Fraser Forster after ten months in the treatment was another, and it should be remembered that it was the valiant work of Austin’s team-mates that allowed him to steal the limelight late on at Old Trafford.
Forster may have kept three clean sheets but two speculative efforts from distance is all that he has faced since he stepped back into the fold, and that is down to the watertight protection that the defence in front has given him.
Ryan Bertrand has been a revelation since moving to the left of three centre-backs, Jose Fonte is far more protected, and the wing-backs of Matty Targett and Cedric Soares feel much more comfortable going forward with that extra centre-half.
The midfield deserves huge credit; it has been rotated heavily in the last triple-header because of the distance they have covered, but it says a lot about the strength in depth that is available that all – even the somewhat-distracted Victor Wanyama has come in and performed impeccably.
Koeman’s crucial week has been passed with flying colours with two wins in two, managerial nemesis Louis van Gaal pushed closer to the Man Utd exit door, and Saints now just three points off sixth.
Adding a free-scoring striker itching to gatecrash England’s Euro 2016 squad to a team full of confidence, and suddenly a late burst into a Europa League spot isn’t impossible.
If anyone is going to take advantage of a half chance, who would bet against Charlie Austin being a big part of that?