LONDON: After the early season swagger, the stagger continues. Against the Cobblers, Manchester United were, at times, cobblers. Nevertheless they squeezed past League One Northampton Town to end a run of three successive defeats and move into the last 16 of the EFL Cup.
That was the good news. The bad news, for United and for Jose Mourinho, is that there are still more questions than answers, with the scrutiny increasing over the future of his captain Wayne Rooney, who was one of the few regular starters not spared.
He played the 90 minutes and while Mourinho had to call for the cavalry - bringing on Marcus Rashford and Zlatan Ibrahimovic early in the second half - despite fielding an experienced, expensive team, United were deeply indebted to a horrific performance by Northampton goalkeeper Adam Smith, who gifted them two goals.
It felt significant for Rooney. Rested from the squad in the Europa League against Feyenoord because it was deemed he had played a lot of football already, he was the standout inclusion. He and Chris Smalling were the only ones who had started against Watford last weekend, when Rooney produced a poor performance in a collective failing, and that was Smalling's first start.
Mourinho also pushed Rooney up front, yet another positional change for the striker/No?10/winger/midfielder. There have now been 22 changes in personnel in three matches - highly unusual for Mourinho, and a sign perhaps that he is unclear as to what he wants from his team, his players and his new club. That is even odder for him.
Strange times, then, for United as they faced a team who had already beaten Premier League opposition, West Bromwich Albion, and Championship high-flyers Barnsley; an impressive achievement for their manager Robert Page, who took over in the summer.
Northampton's 31-match unbeaten run in the league came to an end only on Saturday, when they lost to Chesterfield, so belief is still brimming. There was a feeling of optimism pre-match amid the excitement at hosting United.
But this was no team of kids selected by Mourinho - unlike Arsenal at Nottingham Forest 24 hours earlier - which also spoke to the size of squad he carries. And the strength. And his mood.
Rooney should have scored inside seven minutes, in fact, as he reached Ashley Young's low cross, but he turned it wide and then narrowly missed another one fizzed along by Marcos Rojo.
An escape? No, it did not help Northampton, who then handed United the advantage. Smith needlessly picked up a back-pass from the half-way line, under no -pressure, and the subsequent free-kick was rolled to Rooney, whose shot rebounded off the defensive wall to Michael Carrick - making his first start under Mourinho - who slammed it across the keeper and into the net.
United went close again. This time Timothy Fosu-Mensah met a cross and his powerful header cannoned off the cross-bar. It fell to Rooney, who turned it home but was flagged offside.
United tried to play keep ball but, in fact, slowed the tempo, allowing Northampton back in. They broke with the ball played wide to Kenji Gorre, a former United academy player, who easily beat Fosu-Mensah and struck a fierce, rising shot that Sergio Romero tipped on to the cross-bar and away for a corner.
If that was a warning then United did not heed it. Instead it was they who now gifted a goal, with Rojo inexplicably heading the ball up in his own penalty area and Sam Hoskins latching on to it as it dropped. Daley Blind's rash challenge was picked up by referee Stuart Attwell and Alex Revell coolly sent Romero the wrong way to dispatch his penalty.
The equaliser obviously shifted the mood and increasingly it felt like a full-blooded cup-tie. United had struggled to deal with moderate pressure and could have conceded not just one but two goals. Mourinho would have been furious at the self-inflicted damage and may also have traced the goal to Rooney surrendering possession. "You're getting sacked in the morning," the Northampton fans sang gleefully.
Time and again their team threw their bodies in the way and soon Mourinho had seen enough. Ten minutes into the second-half on trotted Ibrahimovic and Rashford in a compliment to Northampton and an indictment of United's starting XI. Rooney shifted to the right.
The formation looked lopsided but United almost reclaimed the lead when Ander Herrera collected possession 25 yards out struck the post with a powerful drive.
It proved a sighter. Again United came forward, Rashford rolled the ball into the path of Herrera, who struck a crisp, low drive which flew beyond Smith and took the edge of Mourinho's mood. Maybe.
Horribly, Smith blundered again. A hoof forward was run down by Rashford, and Smith, despite having 30 yards on the striker, panicked and failed to clear. United's 18-year-old striker took the ball off him and hammered it into the net. What a calamity. What a body blow to Northampton. There was no way back from that.