David de Gea was Manchester United’s best player here and it would be easy to say he was the reason they somehow won. But it is not as simple as that.

De Gea made important saves in the first half at a time when United were again presenting an impression of men who had never met each other before.

Had Brentford — in particular Mathias Jensen — scored the goals their impressive football merited, they may have won and United interim manager Ralf Rangnick would be facing another inquest.

However, it was not just goalkeeping that set these teams apart by the end of the night. De Gea had been flawless while Brentford debutant Jonas Lossl was nervous. But it was the quality of United’s finishing that enabled them to take three important points.

Jensen had four chances and De Gea saved three of them, while another went wide. None of the saves were anywhere near De Gea’s best work, though. They did not need to be.

Contrast that to what happened when United eventually woke up in the second half.

Anthony Elanga’s opening goal in the 55th minute was impudent and brave. Mason Greenwood’s was created so beautifully by Cristiano Ronaldo and Bruno Fernandes that he could not miss, while Marcus Rashford’s was delivered from exactly the kind of position that Jensen had earlier allowed De Gea to save.

Proof, then, that United still have the quality to win matches, even if so much of what they deliver is sub-standard.

This is what will sustain their followers as they continue to stumble blindly through this dark period in their history. Equally, it will frustrate them and Rangnick.

United were awful for the first half here. Equally as bad as they had been, for example, in struggling to beat Aston Villa in the FA Cup 10 days ago and drawing at Newcastle just after Christmas.

At times Rangnick’s United, just like Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s and Jose Mourinho’s, do not seem to be progressing.

The flaws remain the same — poor ball retention, lack of concentration and a failure to understand basic positioning. There is also an unwillingness to work hard enough or take responsibility at times.

But a team who can throw all that into the pot and then win 3-1 must have something going for them, however hard they seem to try to bury the individual quality that came to the fore between the 55th and 77th minutes here.

Prior to that, Brentford could have had this game won as the first half belonged to Thomas Frank’s admirable side.

While United laboured, Brentford beavered away, forcing errors, turning over the ball and creating chances with smart passes. If only they could have scored.

It feels tough on Jensen, the Danish player, to load the blame on him. Two of the three chances that came his way in the first half were driven towards the target but De Gea saved both with his feet. The other was blocked by a defender. So, no howling misses there. You just need to be a little better to beat De Gea.

Other players suffered, too. Vitaly Janelt had a shot blocked as United defended desperately early on, then Christian Norgaard should have done better than clip a half volley over the bar.

It was exciting and engaging and the home crowd loved it. What it was not was productive and once Jensen had driven another low shot into De Gea’s midriff early in the second half, United responded by pretty much winning the game in the space of seven minutes.

Elanga’s goal was as unusual as it was effective. The pass from Fred into the penalty area was a good one but asked a lot of the Swede.

Reaching the ball before his marker, Elanga’s first touch propelled the ball into the air and he was quick enough to reach it before Lossl and head home. Lossl initially appeared to have been slow but he had not. It was simply smart work from Elanga.

The goal was a blow to Brentford but the second one finished them. Ronaldo’s chested pass in centre field to Fernandes was lovely and, with Greenwood arriving on his right, the pass was perfectly weighted to enable a tap-in.

Ronaldo was to depart soon after and a right fuss he made about it, too.

Having tried and failed to put his coat on, he threw it to the floor and was still chuntering as a combination of Scott McTominay and Fernandes played Rashford through to score high to Lossl’s left.

Ivan Toney did eventually score for Brentford — turning in after some penalty area ping-pong — but by then Frank’s team were contemplating a worrying run that has now seen them take only three points from 18.

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But their football here suggested they should not worry too much. As for United, well this is simply what they are these days. Capable of the good and the bad in equal measure.

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