After a difficult start to the season, losing two games in a row to Brighton and Spurs, United look to have steadied the ship at Watford – after they notched up their second win on the bounce away from Old Trafford. Even respectable bookmakers you can trust are struggling to predict what Manchester United we are going to see these days.
But by no means did Manchester United sail smoothly towards a positive result on Saturday and in fact, their victory at the Vicarage Road kind of summed up the kind of ‘routine win’ under Jose Mourinho, where the Red Devils show that they are capable of executing a specific game plan to perfection in one half but look utterly devoid of any in the other.
From the outset, United looked confident about how they were set up – bolstered by a physically strong and towering midfield, thanks to Marouane Fellaini at the base of a middle three with Nemanja Matic and Paul Pogba tucked in – completing the ‘first wall’ as Mourinho called it, in front of what has been a suspect back four.
United had conceded 6 goals in the 2 defeats against Brighton and Spurs – with almost every goal coming from an avoidable individual defensive error, so it was understandable why Mourinho preferred to reinforce his defenders with a bit of steel in front of them on Saturday, especially against a side with a powerful aerial presence. And it all worked, for 45 minutes.
The visitors started with intensity – created a clear-cut chance very early on in the game through teasing ball from Alexis Sanchez on the left, to go begging after Lukaku failed to go for it first time, despite being six yards from goal. But the breakthrough would come half an hour in – after United capitalize on a good ten-minute spell with two quick goals from Romelu Lukaku and Chris Smalling. The defender, who has now scored more goals than Anthony Martial in 2018, in particular, scored an impressive volley for the second, converting a well-worked set piece – which sent the coaching staff into delirium.
United went into the tunnel at half-time making the most out of their chances – yet needing to kill the game with one more goal – which could have come had they continued to press on the advantage. But out came the side with seemingly – an entirely different mindset.
The contrast between the first and second half could not have been starker. They were restrained, stopped taking the game to the opposition – their shot volume was reduced from 8 in the first half to 1 in the second. Going from hogging the ball 64% of that first half, United conceded so much of it to Watford that the possession in the second half ended 51% in the favor of Watford.
Even though all of this did not matter in the grand scheme of things, as United ultimately came away with all 3 points, their inability to control the proceedings for the entire duration of a match, is quite telling even in games where they get a headstart and assert a scoreline advantage in the early stages.
When the obvious thing is to go out and test the opposition back four more in a bid to put them to the sword, like any side with title aspirations should, Mourinho’s United consciously retreated ten yards back and invited pressure, as a result.
What should have been a comfortable result, ended 2-1 with United going a man down and needing an outstanding save from their goalkeeper once again, to secure maximum points. It is a recurring template that, while satisfying in the short term, most definitely cannot work for 50 and odd games in a season. It summed up Manchester United under Mourinho’s reign so far: extraordinarily ordinary.