MANCHESTER UNITED vs WATFORD
02.03.2016

After a run of three games and three wins over a period of seven days United now entertained Watford at Old Trafford looking for a fourth win in ten days. The question every United fan was asking is would Van Gaal continue with the youngsters as the more experienced players begin to return from injury?

PERSONNEL

In: Fosu-Mensah and Martial.
Out: Carrick and Lingard.

KEY POINTS

  • This was one of those games where United started brightly and then their performance gradually deteriorated as the game went on. Generally they were undone because their passing in the final third was too often too slow and inaccurate. Still they stuck to the task and got some reward.
  • Reverting to the usual 4-2-3-1 Van Gaal reintroduced Martial on the right, so leaving Rashford as the central striker, but the bright start aside United looked at their most threatening when these two swapped and Rashford attacked the bye-line in the half space on the right.
  • Another game, another full debutante. This time Tim Fosu-Mensah started for the first time and although the defence in this game looked shaky he looked solid. The youngster featured in his more usual centre back position here rather than the fullback position where he featured as a substitute against Arsenal.
  • Despite a shaky defence United did not concede and a large slice of the credit for this should go to Morgan Schneiderlin who had an excellent game shielding that defence and helping maintain team shape. Herrera was deeper than against Arsenal but still pushed forward ahead of his central midfield partner. His performance wasn’t at the level of his display in the previous game and he was substituted in the 77th minute after a period where he seemed to have lost his midfield bearings.
  • United had more possession but Watford used the ball well when they had it. They were direct, quick and dynamic as they broke forward. A little more composure in front of goal and they might have scored a goal or two. Watford can consider themselves to be unlucky not to have got anything out of the game. But as they say in the army, that’s tough.

FIRST HALF

After an adjustment in the previous match against Arsenal, United reverted to a more usual 4-2-3-1 shape here with Rashford continuing up front. Martial returned to the side on the right and Tim Fosu-Mensah replaced Carrick on the right side of the central defence. Watford set up as a 4-4-2 with Capoue on the right and Ighalo and Deeney as the forwards.

cb 1st half Timothy-Fosu-Mensah-498540

United first half shape and Tm Fosu-Mensah

United started the game brightly passing at a good tempo. What was noticeable from the start was that they regularly switched the ball via long diagonal passes into the half spaces on the opposite side of the pitch. These passes were aimed at Martial on the right or Memphis on the left, and were generally hit behind the Watford defence for the player to chase rather than to feet. These passes were too often inaccurate and failed to find the intended recipient. United persisted with this tactic throughout the half and it just didn’t work. Some of United’s football was promising but it lacked control in the final third.

Mata was for the second game running providing plenty movement behind Rashford. He was the player often dropping deep or to the left or right to pick the ball up and switch play. Unfortunately this meant that he was a bit too far away from Rashford who often looked isolated. In the Arsenal game Mata dropping deeper didn’t have this effect because Herrera was usually higher up the pitch and so United kept at least one player closer to the forward but in this game Herrera was deeper.

The other feature of the first half was how shaky the United defence looked when Watford managed to break. They often did this through Capoue on their right, who attacked Blind and Rojo on the United left. Blind looked particularly shaky having perhaps his worst game as a United defender. He regularly gave the ball away and was often caught out of position. This allowed Ighalo to get into a couple of one-on-one situation with De Gea. Fortunately a combination of De Gea brilliance in a one-on-one situation and an excellent display from Fosu-Mensah meant that United did not concede.

Solid, confident performance by Fosu-Mensahand Schneiderlin who screened the defence well

Solid, confident performance by Fosu-Mensahand Schneiderlin who screened the defence well

Fosu-Mensah was excellent. Quick and strong his solidity in a couple of block tackles marks him out as a defenders defender. But he looks cool and comfortable on the ball, composed like the other players who have stepped out of the youth shadows in recent weeks. Watford’s forwards are big strong players, but despite his youth he was in no way intimidated and was United’s best defender on the night.

United tried to overload in wide areas but as the half wore on their passing became slower and more deliberate. As has often been the case they did not therefore do enough to trouble a visiting teams two banks of four. Rojo and Varela pushed forward to support Memphis and Martial but it was all too slow and lacked a dynamic energy. Memphis, as he regularly does took every opportunity to cut inside square across the oppositions defence to finish with a shot towards the opposite side of the goal but his radar was off and his shots were all too often off target.

SECOND HALF

United started the second half poorly. It was as if they had fallen asleep and hadn’t realised that the match had started again. Watford took control at this point and for about fifteen minutes looked the better side, created a couple of chances and had the lion’s share of the ball. It actually took until about the middle of the half for United to get going again. Why?

cb 2nd half  PANews BT_P-aa86c534-e0f6-4e9d-8522-2c383796a2d1_I1

United second-half shape and Marcus Rashford who moved out to the right

Whatever the reason for this, the display improved when Rashford and Martial swapped positions. Rashford has played a lot of his youth football in wide positions and now he started to attack Watford with direct running in the half space on the right. The fact this was in the half space was significant because it meant that he was usually running at the defender in the penalty area and of course that meant that the defender couldn’t tough him. He regularly beat Holbas here, but usually with pace and power rather than trickery. He got behind the defence to the bye-line on several occasions but unfortunately nobody connected with a series of dangerous deliveries from the right hand side.

Marcus Rashford  Take-ons

Marcus Rashford Take-ons

Darmian replaced Rojo, (probably because Rojo was tiring in only his second game back from an injury).

The game was beginning to get a bit stretched now and Herrera seemed to be pushing further forward. This left Schneiderlin more isolated and United naturally more vulnerable to a breakaway. It wasn’t a surprise then when on 77 minutes Van Gaal removed Herrera. It was a surprise that he chose to bring on Lingard in a central midfield position, but then his bench gave him few alternatives. What was noticeable now was how often Mata’s involvement in the game slowed a United move down. This is a concern because as the number 10 he is the fulcrum of the teams attack. Most moves will go through him and whilst Memphis, Rashford, Martial and Lingard as he broke forward all have pace when the ball reached Mata his ponderousness stood out slowing things down and allowing time for the Watford defence to adjust. This isn’t about Mata’s lack of speed across the ground, in this game it was about taking an extra touch and so delaying the pass. All this meant that United’s play seemed too deliberate and predictable at the vital moment.

Mata - Boom!

Mata – Boom!

The game looked to be drifting to a goalless draw and then Mata produced a piece of magic to redeem himself and win the game. Martial drew a foul and Mata stepped up to beat the wall and keeper with a curled shot into the top corner. Boom! 1-0. 83 minutes played.

Fortunately United had enough game sense to see the game out. Van Gaal ran down the clock with a late substitution, McNair replacing Mata in the 89th minute.

CONCLUSION

This win kept United’s winning run going but it was generally a disappointing performance. Watford’s strength this season has been their attack and they showed with their direct pacey breaking moves why they have been so effective. It is then a bit of a mystery as to how United did not concede at least one goal. It is even more of a mystery how United achieved this on an occasion where their defence put in such a shaky performance. Our best defender was full debutante Tim Fosu-Mensah who looked strong confident and solid against Watford’s big forceful strike force.

general stats

With other teams at the top end of the table all losing this was a big win; United have made up six points on Arsenal and have drawn level on points with Manchester City. City may have a game in hand but that is still only a potential three point difference and that to a team that last weekend people were suggesting could still win the league. For United a top four finish does not seem lost, especially as we can reasonably expect at least one of the teams above us to be affected by the approaching squeaky bum time. They would have to improve on this performance, but why not as players return from injury.