United had come through a tough game at home to Brighton with a win, but now began a tricky run of fixtures away at Watford. The Hornets had a good start to the season and represented a difficult away test. Thankfully, despite a brief scare late in the second half, United ran out 4-2 victors, with a strong defensive performance and clinical finishing.
Mourinho changed the shape of the side back to a 3-5-2, a formation United have had success with earlier in the season. De Gea remained in goal. The back five were Valencia, Smalling, Lindelof, Rojo and Young. The midfield was made up of Matic, Pogba and Lingard in the ten role. Lukaku and Martial were paired together up front. Watford also played a back three, including the dangerous Richarlison.
The game started with both sides tentatively feeling each other out. Watford were finding it very easy to play through the United midfield. Hughes tucked in to link up with Cleverley and Doucoure, which meant Pogba and Matic were often overwhelmed.
However, Watford didn’t manage to create any clear opportunities, only troubling the United defence with a Richarlison header from a corner that was blocked by a United defender. The Reds were attempting to break forward when they could, Martial was the first to make it to the Watford area, only to be crowded out by their defence.
Then out of nowhere, United opened the scoring. Just before the twenty minute mark, Lukaku brilliantly turned his marker just inside the Watford half. He laid it central to Lingard, who span Kabasele and held the ball up to wait for support. The midfielder laid it out to Young wide on the left hand side. The wing-back stood up his opposing defender then unleashed a strike that was too quick for Gomes; it almost hit the back of the net before he had even dived.
The second goal came less than five minutes later. Pogba was brought down about 35 yards out setting up a free kick in the middle of the goal. Normally, Pogba would try from this range, but full of confidence, Ashley Young stepped up instead. He whipped it up and over the wall and into the side netting on the keeper’s right. The arc of the ball was beautiful, it was a brilliant goal. It’s not an overstatement to say that it was Beckham-esque.
Watford were on the ropes but United weren’t finished. A long punt clear by Rojo landed at the feet of Lingard, who then flicked the ball high and up in the air to no one in particular. Kabasele’s clearing header was poor and fell to Lukaku. The Belgian released Martial to his right, who was in acres of space on the edge of the area. The Frenchman took one touch into the box, then slotted it home into the bottom right hand corner. 3-0 and surely game over?
Watford now looked shellshocked but they were still trying to play their way forward. However, they failed to get past United’s strong back line. All of the back five played brilliantly on the night, but most surprisingly, Lindelof looked like a £30m defender. He was full of confidence, stepping forward, making interceptions then playing the ball away. This was an encouraging performance from the Swede.
At the end of the half, both sides had a chance to score. Lukaku ran 40 plus yards with the ball on his own, got to the edge of the area and shot with his weaker foot. Gomes parried the ball to his right, Lingard followed it up but the keeper managed to palm it over the bar and away. It should have been 4-0.
Watford then had their best chance of the half. Femenia ran from the right touchline across the whole of the United defensive line, before clipping it back onto the head of the arriving Richarlison. The Brazilian managed to get a header at goal, only for it to skim the top of the bar and go over.
The second half resumed in very much the same manner, with Watford looking the better side but unable to create proper chances. Lingard was now dropping into the midfield to help out Pogba and Matic. United were very much happy to see the game out, only countering when the chance arose.
One such chance was a brilliant counter-attack off a Watford corner. Martial received the ball on the edge of the centre circle then ran through unopposed to outside Watford’s box. He laid the ball right to Lukaku, whose first touch took it out from under his feet. But ultimately he played in a poor cross, that trickled past everyone and wide.
Matic was then withdrawn due to a minor injury, replaced by Herrera. At this point, Silva made his most important change of the match, bringing on Carillo and Pereyra for Prodl and the injured Hughes. The two South Americans were the real game changers for Watford.
However, Watford were still failing to pressure the United defence, often playing in front of them and were still terrified of being caught on the break. Mourinho then brought on Rashford for Martial, moving United to a 5-4-1 formation, in an attempt to defend the lead. The Reds hadn’t been under any threat, to drop off and invite Watford onto them seemed a strange decision.
With fifteen minutes to go, Lukaku wasted a great chance to truly put the game to bed. Rashford did really well, pressing Mariappa and winning the ball in Watford’s penalty area. The winger slid the ball to Lukaku who was completely alone, but he spent too long deciding what to do, ultimately being robbed by Doucoure and having his second attempt cleared.
The Hornets then went up the other end and scored. Pereyra stood up Rojo inside the United area and jinked past him. Rojo swung round and stabbed at the ball, only to bring his countryman down, giving away a penalty. Deeney slid the penalty into the bottom left hand corner for what initially looked like a consolation goal.
The crowd were now behind Watford and they were pouring forward. With less than ten minutes to go, they got a second. After some good play down the right, Carrillo stood up Young on the Watford right, then fizzed in a cross to the edge of the United box. An unmarked Doucoure strode forward and slammed it home.
It now felt like United were about to pull Liverpool’s favourite trick of going three up then throwing everything away. But Liverpool don’t have Jesse Lingard. Herrera cleared a Watford chance to the Mancunian, who received the ball 35 yards outside the United penalty area. He then proceeded to dribble the length of the field and score. He ran beyond Cleverley, jinked past Mariappa, span Kabasele then stuck the ball in the bottom left hand corner of the Watford goal. It was reminiscent of a certain Ryan Giggs goal.
Lingard also attempted a Cantona style celebration, slightly ruining it by doing a weird half knee slide in between. To comment on his actual performance, he had a great game and looks a much better option in the ten position than Mkhitaryan. He was always busy, pressing the Watford players, finding little pockets of space and linking up with his fellow attackers.
This was a very weird game. It was certainly United’s most clinical performance as, Lukaku aside, almost every time United had a chance, they scored. Their defence also performed admirably, never looking entirely troubled. However, United were often overrun in midfield and they could never claim they controlled the game. But Watford are a very good side, so to score four goals away from home should be regarded a successful performance. Next comes Arsenal away. If United defend this well at the Emirates, they should come away with something. Let’s hope so!