In a week where six points could be an incredible boost ahead of the usually hectic period just on the horizon, Manchester United completed phase one of their operation and quite remarkably so.
Not only did they secure three vital points against a decent Watford side away from home, but they went about their business in style and suave. United score four (or more) goals in a game not for the first, second or the third time – but for an eighth time this season (at least twice more than any other side in the division) under Jose Mourinho, who still somehow, attracts widespread criticism for his seemingly must-not-lose approach.
Jose Mourinho is most certainly reactive – his game plan is typically tailored to counter the opposition, playing to their weaknesses often in a bid to invite them to fall into a measured trap set up by him, which when works, is super-effective. But it is a touch unfair to call a man that fields two wingers at wing-back/full-back, three exciting and young forwards up front and an expansive Paul Pogba in the middle – in a starting eleven away from home when the record is sub-par – defensive or worse, negative.
United started brightly – scoring three in thirty minutes – thanks to 31-year old Ashley Young whose resurgence has been one of the success stories this season. The Red Devils approached the game with the right mindset and pounced on the Hornets – during their momentary lapses of concentration with incisive finishing. Anthony Martial’s finish for the third was testament to how lethal they were in front of goal – but halfway through the second half, the visitors suffered from their own version of a drop in focus. Marcos Rojo, who has yet to face a defeat under Mourinho since away at West Ham in March 2016, conceded a penalty courtesy of a mistimed tackle and Watford pegged one back.
As the Sir Elton John Stand erupted with hope when Doucoure reduced the lead to one, Mourinho looked anxious on the touchline, preparing to bring on Zlatan Ibrahimovic – his one last roll of the dice to keep the visitors at bay and slow down the tempo to the pace of a 36-year old.
But Jesse Lingard, who had enjoyed a pretty solid game until then, having already played a role in the first goal – popped up with a wonderful solo goal, in a way only Jesse Lingard does. Out of the blue, he picked the ball up from inside his own half, ran the length of the pitch, weaving through men as if they were mannequins, to slot home the all-important fourth – and to seal all three points.
The 25-year old also noticeably missed a much simpler chance earlier in the game – which kind of summed up the player he has grown to become at Manchester United. A scorer of great goals but not a great scorer of goals.
The victory at Watford could not have come at a better time for United. Ahead of a trip to Arsenal – who seem to have recovered after a poor start (again) and enjoy an equally strong record at home.
For Jose Mourinho however, this has been the Achilles’ heel. A win away from home against a side firmly in the top six has eluded the Portuguese for two full years now and it cannot go on any longer, should the Red Devils have serious ambitions to not just compete but win a league title under his tutelage.
Given the rate at which Manchester City are accumulating points at the moment, United will need to do very well even to chip away at the current 5-point gap (at the time of writing) between themselves and the summit, let alone find themselves there by the end of the year.