Manchester United vs. Watford: United finally get a routine win


Manchester United finally get a nice, routine win without too much drama or hassle. Bruno Fernandes was great, and Martial scored an incredible goal.

Manchester United faced Watford on Sunday in a key clash for their top-four credentials. A win would push them up to fifth, just three points off Chelsea. This was the sort of team that United struggled to beat far too often, and all eyes were on Old Trafford to see what sort of an impact Bruno Fernandes would have against a team that kept a low block.

Surprisingly, Watford were far from defensive in the opening moments of the game. They pressed high, put United under pressure, and elicited quite a few nervous moments. United’s midfield seemed particularly uncomfortable on the face of Watford’s press, unable to really get out of their half comfortably. This discomfort was shown by Maguire and Matic getting in each other’s way in the third minute of the game, with Deeney capitalising and almost getting in on goal, with Shaw’s quick thinking bailing them both out.

After the frantic first few minutes, the game settled down a bit, although Manchester United still seemed a bit uncomfortable on the ball. In particular, the Watford midfield seemed to target Fred, who lingered on the ball a bit too long. One of these losses of possession led to another chance for Doucouré, whose shot had de Gea scrambling to his near post. Manchester United seemed unable to play through Watford, because all of the options they had upfront were running into each other.

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The problem was that United didn’t expect Watford to get at them from the first minute. Watford pushed very high as a team, with their full-backs especially high. This can be seen from the average position of the Watford players, which was by no means sitting back and parking the bus. Kudos to Nigel Pearson for that; he nearly got rewarded for his surprise with an early goal at Old Trafford.

But Manchester United managed to hold on, and managed to adjust tactically in order to use the space left by the high pressing midfielders and full-backs. In particular, we saw that Bruno Fernandes tended to take up more spaces on the wings, particularly on the left flank, filling the space vacated by Craig Dawson‘s marauding runs forward. His intelligent use of space paid off; he made a brilliant run to exploit the half-space between the right centre back and the right back (whose place Capoue was filling) and won the penalty which gave United the lead.

I must admit though; Foster didn’t need to rush out the way he did. Kabasele pretty much was level with Fernandes when he was running through. Foster rushing out like that just made it easier for Fernandes to knock the ball ahead and dangle his leg out for the penalty. On the other hand, Fernandes would’ve had to make a low probability finish across Foster with his left foot, which was definitely tougher to do.

Anyway, back to the penalty. It was reminiscent of Jorginho’s penalties for Chelsea. To take a penalty like that in your early days in a Manchester United shirt takes guts. Lots of them. That entire passage of play demonstrates the sort of player United have got on their hands; intelligent, skillful, fast, and unfazed by pressure. The fee Manchester United have paid for him already looks like a bargain.

The next half started off in a more exciting fashion, with Watford actually putting the ball into the net. It was poor set-piece defending from United again; it has been a recurring theme this season, and despite the aerial prowess that Solskjær has at his disposal, he hasn’t been able to get his set-piece defending right. Manchester United have already conceded 10 goals from set pieces this season, the joint fourth highest in the league, and they would have conceded another had it not been for the handball rule, which still doesn’t excuse the chaos that ensued when the ball was floated into the mixer.

It was a welcome wake up call for the team which was only 1-0 up. But the small tactical tweaks that Solskjær had made in half time were beginning to give United more space in attack. He told both wingers, James and Greenwood, to rein in their instinct to cut inside and stay wide in order to stretch the pitch and exploit the space behind the full backs. The two sitting midfielders, Fred and Matic, also started playing deeper than they had, so that Fernandes had the whole pitch to roam.

And use it he did. Picking the ball up on the left side of the pitch again (United seem to have an obsession with midfielders and attackers who like the left side more), he dragged defenders towards him and played a no-look pass into Anthony Martial‘s path, who proceeded to shoot against Foster’s body, and then picked up the ricochet at an acute angle on the left side.

What happened next was pure, pure brilliance from Anthony Martial. “I could watch it all day,” said Peter Crouch on BBC Match of the Day, and he was not wrong. He  dribbles back and puts his body between Foster and himself so that the ball didn’t get picked off his feet. He sees three Watford defenders right next to him, and Foster standing there behind him. Having assessed his options, he does a neat little pull back from in front of Capoue and nonchalantly chips over Foster.

Many people say that the Watford defenders let him do it. They didn’t give him any other option. But there is another way to look at it. Most strikers, having collected the ball, would have started going towards the byline to reset the play. Heck, even Martial did that a lot. The option that Martial took of dribbling towards Capoue and then doing the pullback was low probability in itself. You can see it from the defense; when Martial initially got the ball, Masina had been moving towards the goal line, but dismissed that option as ludicrous and instead started to go back to reset the offside trap, because at that point, the only option that seemed possible was Martial going out of the box, towards the wing. Of course, that didn’t happen, and he got a nice rollicking from Foster for his troubles.

Now Watford were desperate, and allowed United to counter attack. Greenwood’s goal was another thing of beauty, for completely different reasons. While Martial’s goal was brilliant for its audacity and inventiveness, Greenwood’s was a demonstration of inevitability. The way he surged forward, you pretty much knew what was going to happen. The feint on the halfway line, the effortless gathering of the ball on the edge of the box. It all seemed so easy for Mason. There’s a certain grace to the way Greenwood scores goals; it looks effortless.

But let’s not forget that Bruno Fernandes had a huge role to play in this. It was very intelligent play by him to move out to the right flank, seeing Greenwood surge through the center. That is the entire reason why Greenwood had the space to take two touches and shoot; otherwise, he would have had two defenders on him.

Quick word in for Ighalo. He looks pretty sharp. The anticipation he demonstrated to intercept the back pass was really good, and he almost scored despite the really tight angle. He’s been unlucky twice already, and I think he’s a great impact substitute to have. Considering United’s young striking options and Ighalo’s love for the club, I’ll stick my neck out and say that I think Ighalo’s going to be at United come the beginning of the 2020/21 season.

I don’t want to say it, because it’s been a false dawn so many times, but I’m really enjoying United’s play with Fernandes in the team. I really think he’s the missing piece for Solskjær. This game still isn’t conclusive, though. In many ways, Watford actually played to United’s strengths, which is a strange thing to do for a team in a relegation fight. Although United did take time to adjust to Watford’s tactics, I think Watford probably would’ve made it more difficult for us if they’d just parked the bus from the beginning. Of course, all of that would’ve been different if Deeney had been sharper in the first few minutes of the game, but that’s football. Small moments change things. There are still more difficult tests coming up, with Everton away a particularly good gauge considering Ancelotti’s impact at Goodison, who has both tightened the defense considerably (notwithstanding Arsenal’s three goals). Derby County will be a good test too. Both of these teams had beaten United at important points last season, and United will want to show that they’ve moved forward. Let’s hope they have.

All statistics via WhoScored.

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Who was your man of the match against Watford?