Manchester United Stumble after Watford Fightback
Manchester United's patchy start to the season made matters worse for an already troubled dressing room. Now they were up against Watford who had the perfect start to the season winning all their games so far. Although Watford had lost last 12 of their 13 games against United in the league this time it was different. Coming into this game they had just defeated a Tottenham side who had won against Manchester United the week before that. Records would have tumbled had Watford won this game and maintained their perfect start. The match on its own provided plenty of excitement for the neutral and joy and hope for fans on either side.
Manchester United made just one change to the team which turned out against Burnley in the last game week with Ashley Young replacing Luke Shaw at left back owing to a head injury. Watford named an unchanged starting XI which started against Tottenham. A 4-2-3-1 Setup for the Red Devils with Fellaini sitting deep meant freedom for the rest of the 5 players to attack the Watford goal with more freedom. The Hornets in their unusual but direct 4-2-2-2 setup looked to cause problems for the unsettled United defence.
The game itself was an end to end affair largely with both teams having phases of possession and dominance. However United turned out the winners as they absorbed the pressure better and grabbed their chances when they came. At one point it looked like the Red Devils would finish the game 3 up in the first half itself.
The first clear chance though came to Watford but for De Gea, they would have taken the lead. Some slow defending around the United box allowed Deeney to rocket a shot towards the upper right corner which the United number 1 tipped over the goal with one hand. United absorbed some pressure from Watford and then started to build possession. Alexis Sanchez forced Foster into making a good save to tip it over when he tried to squeeze in a shot from a tight angle after being supplied by Lukaku.
At the 34th minute, Lingard was brought down by Etienne Capoue earning him a yellow. Belgian Centre back Kabasele lost his fellow countryman Fellaini on the resulting Free Kick. Fellaini controlled the ball well to put in a cross which was deflected to the far right which is floated in again by Young. Lukaku timed his run well to guide the awkward delivery in the goal with his stomach. Some Watford players were convinced it was a handball but the replays clearly showed otherwise. Holebas was booked for his protest by Mike Dean.
2 minutes later Pogba almost put United 2 goals ahead from a rocket that Foster managed to tip over despite the late movement. The excellent work by Foster couldn't stop United for too long though. Smalling who had been a rock at the back put United 2 ahead with a glorious finish that a certain Zlatan would be proud of. Young's deep delivery from the corner was well worked in training and well executed to get the second goal. Fellaini made a late run into the box to head the ball towards smalling in the 6-yard box. Smalling chested the ball beautifully to set it up for the volley that finished the move. To say the relief on Jose Mourinho's face was palpable would be a gross understatement.
As Watford looked to be in free fall United were looking to bury the game in the first half itself. Fellaini and Valencia combined beautifully on the right, brought in Lingard into play who set up a delicious volley for Paul Pogba from a close range only for Foster to deny him again. Quick closing down from the former United keeper meant he closed down the angle for Pogba and denied United a third. The whistle blew for Halftime and United looked set for back to back wins. Watford looked out of ideas and out of breath.
The Hornets led by Troy Deeney looked pumped despite looking like their bubble was about to burst at the end of the first half. The game started uncertainly as to who wanted to take control. United looked to concede the mantle to Watford who grew in stature. United had clearly come out with a plan to stand back which is what Jose Mourinho looks to do, consolidate.
A strong spell for the Hornets paid off with a powerful finish in the 65th minute from Gray as he raced into the box to meet Doucoures shaped cut back pass. The ball hit the roof of the net despite De Gea getting a hand on it. United had held firm so far but found themselves in a precarious position with 25 Minutes to go. Matic was booked for a foul in the middle trying to stop a counter in the 70th minute.
Watford now pressed higher to double their score and started spraying the United box from all sides of the park. Mourinho brought on Martial in place of Lingard while Watford made an attacking change of their own bringing Kiko Femenia for Janmaat. Minutes later United had a chance to finish the game off with Lukaku and Valencia combining on a counter. The final pass laid up for Sanchez who's shot was blocked by a retreating Cathcart.
Another change from United saw Scott McTominay come on for Sanchez in the 84th. Martial immediately moved to the left and McTominay guarded the right wing. Watford took off Holebas for Adam Masina simultaneously. A final roll of the dice from Gracia was putting Isaac Success on for Cathcart. United were tenuously holding on to the 1 goal advantage.
In the 90th minute, Doucoure unleashed a curling effort from his weaker left foot only to be held by De Gea who made it seem way easier than it was. United looked set to waste some more time bringing on Bailly for Valencia. The United captain wasted almost a minute of the allotted 3 minutes of extra time. Surely this was it or so it seemed. Matic saw a second yellow for lunging into poorly timed and judged challenge on Hughes who was darting down the right flank. It seemed like Young had the run covered and there was no need for Matic to go in like that. He will face a one-match ban.
The resulting free-kick from the right met with Kabasele's head and was headed for the goal but De Gea expertly parried it wide away from an oncoming Watford player.
The resulting corner was almost headed in but somehow United managed to keep it out. De Gea was out of the reckoning for this one though.
Mike Dean finally blew the whistle and ended the dream start to the season for Javi Gracia and his men with a 2-1 defeat. Relief for Jose who lives to see another day at Manchester United.
Men of the Match
Romelu Lukaku and Chris Smalling scored important goals to earn the win for Manchester United. While Chris Smalling was a rock at the back, winning important headers and tackles, Lukaku contributed with his tireless effort upfront pressing and pulling the Watford defence. Jose Mourinho had a special mention of Lukaku in the post-match interview for his long run tracking back and defending on the right flank to cover for Valencia.
Manchester United travel to Bern to face Young Boys in the first round of the Champions League in the Midweek and later host Wolves in the Premier League. Watford will play Fulham at Craven Cottage on the weekend.
United have started their climb up and are now 8th tied on points but behind on goal difference with Tottenham and Arsenal. Watford still manages to sit pretty at 4th in the table but will need to pick up their game and come out with more than just direct football. United, on the other hand, will have to work on their game management and not concede the advantage to opponents. If they want to challenge for the title this is something that needs a massive focus especially against tougher opponents and in low scoring games.