Wayne Rooney struggles as Manchester United hit back against Northampton
EFL Cup: Northampton 1-3 Man United
A calamity averted for the manager and the side on whose struggles the football firmament is currently transfixed, though there was nothing to suggest a corner turned and easier times immediately ahead.
Jose Mourinho was subdued, carrying some of the world on his shoulders, it seemed, and his litany of complaints to the fourth official which we are accustomed to could not hide the fact.
He wore grey shoes last night and the grey look of an individual wondering where his Midas touch disappeared to. The burden that skipper Wayne Rooney has immediately become to him was not lightened - nor was his mood when the Red Devils drew Manchester City in the next round of the EFL Cup.
The 30-year-old ended the game wide right, a bystander to the recovery from Manchester United's brief difficult spell which substitutes Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Marcus Rashford had manufactured.
The drift towards the unenviable decision to drop Rooney is no less inexorable because of a win against such modest opposition as Northampton Town.
It will dominate the discourse ahead of Saturday's encounter with Leicester and when it comes, it will be another drama.
All told, it was not exactly a narrative and an inheritance to smile about, even though the performances of goalscorers Michael Carrick, Ander Herrera and Rashford in the 3-1 win certainly were. All three staked a claim to start against the Foxes.
It was no place for a manager who, as every amateur statistician seemed to know, lost 14 out of his previous 32 games as a manager and just succumbed to three successive defeats for the first time in 14 years.
All the little rituals of a United journey into modest surrounds were in place. A chorus of boos for Ibrahimovic as he stepped out from the stand were substantial. He paused, with manifest disdain, to take in what he was seeing. A face-to-face encounter with Northampton's Bob the Builder mascot.
Mourinho's line-up had a touch of reputation building about it. All but two of the team that succumbed at Watford were rested and the prevailing mood of national doubt about Rooney in the intervening days made his own inclusion an enforced one.
The work-rate from him was there in the first half, of course, but there was no redemption. Operating at the spear of the attack, he was anything but sharp.
The forward was spared initial embarrassment by straying into an offside position when he side-footed wide in front of goal, after Ashley Young teed him up after seven minutes.
He couldn't reach the six-yard box fast enough to divert Marco Rojo's low cross from the left into the net seven minutes later. When he finally did poke home a rebound when Tim Fosu-Mensah's header had clattered the bar, he was offside again.
Carrick provided the class and assurance which has been missing in midfield.
Restored after a month when he has been invisible to Mourinho, his opening 18th-minute goal - a right-footed shot bent into the top left-hand corner when a free-kick was blocked into his path - was fine, and so too his ability to find a forward pass.
Rojo's attempt to defend United's left flank was frankly inept as Sam Hoskins embarrassed him twice in the first half hour. The team's attempts to build from the back were also laboured.
Fosu-Mensah was also in a state of panic when Kenji Gorre, the former United trainee, ran at him.
First he allowed the 21-year-old Dutch loanee to find a shot which Sergio Romero had to touch onto the bar and over.
Then he dithered in possession in the box, allowing Hoskins to seize the ball.
Daley Blind clumsily fouled him and Alex Revell converted the penalty.
The reinforcements were on within 10 minutes of the re-start - Rooney dropping back for Ibrahimovic to seize his space and Rashford arriving to win some returns on the left and provide more meaningful service than an ineffective Memphis Depay.
Rashford was the impact player again, delivering high into the area after collecting a 40-yard ball from Carrick and then laying a ball into the inside left channel that Herrera ran onto and thumped low past Adam Smith.
The night was wrapped up when the goalkeeper was undone by his own nerves when a lumped ball descended on him with Rashford in pursuit, 15 minutes from time.
Smith made to kick it and found fresh air, allowing Rashford to nip in and walk it into the net. It was the fortune of a striker operating with such an unfettered mind that he believes things will happen. Rooney has forgotten what that feels like.
NORTHAMPTON: Smith, Moloney, Buchanan, Diamond, Revell, Gorre (Potter, 66 mins), McCourt (Richards, 73 mins), Hoskins, Beautyman (O'Toole, 54 mins), Taylor. Unused subs: Cornell, Byrom, Sonupe, Nyatanga.
MAN UTD: Romero, Fosu-Mensah (Rashford, 55 mins), Smalling, Blind, Rojo, Schneiderlin (Fellaini, 73 mins), Carrick, Memphis (Ibrahimovic, 55 mins), Herrera, Young, Rooney. Unused subs: Johnstone, Darmian, Lingard, Mata.
Referee: Stuart Attwell (Warwickshire)
Man of the match: Michael Carrick
Match rating: 6/10