Manchester United breezed past Watford with an Anthony Martial-Bruno Fernandes inspired 3-0 win, boosting their top- four hopes and plunging Watford deeper into trouble.
Fernandes opened the scoring with a penalty, before second half goals from Martial and Mason Greenwood sealed the win, which helped the hosts climb to fifth place in the Premier League table.
Here are five things we learned from the game:
Bruno fills Pogba void
Paul Pogba has been on the receiving end of recurrent swathes of criticism during his United career, but he has arguably been a one man midfield at United – only reiterated by his teammates’ complete lack of creativity against a low block in the Frenchman’s absence in the first half of this season.
Enter Fernandes. While his arrival has reignited United’s midfield, a lot of the time that has been done merely through doing the basics well; moving the ball quickly, finding space in dangerous areas and contributing to build up all over the pitch. He is more of a conventional number 10 than Pogba, but has proven he possesses many of the attributes United so dearly missed in the Frenchman.
Bruno Fernandes' game by numbers vs. Watford:
100% take-ons completed
100% tackles won
71% pass accuracy
5 open play crosses
4 chances created
3 take-ons completed
3 fouls won
1 penalty won
He's arrived. 💥 pic.twitter.com/ubk85TbcjR
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) February 23, 2020
His efforts from distance have shown their venom and will inevitably lead to a decisive strike in the near future, his passing has been excellent and he has been more than willing to lead by example despite having been in Manchester for less than a month. His penalty on Sunday is only a teaser of what’s to come.
Pogba’s future remains unclear. but even if United’s record signing is to be embroiled in more transfer speculation and colourful Mino Raiola soliloquies – the gulf in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s midfield won’t be quite as daunting.
Man Utd still need deep-lying playmaker
An emphatic win for United could have looked very different had they been punished for their sloppiness early on. Nemanja Matic and Fred have improved drastically in the second half of this season, but neither have the ingredients to fill the most pressing issue in Solskjaer‘s midfield – the lack of a metronome.
Its the reason the ball spends much of games at Old Trafford shuttling from midfield to defence like a lukewarm potato when teams sit back against United. Matic is programmed to display prowess when off the ball and Fred is capable once the opposition’s midfield line is breached. Neither can be counted on to regularly dictate games.
The first 10 minutes were especially messy from United, and they should have been 1-0 down but Troy Deeney fluffed his lines after a misplaced pass out from the back. On the half hour mark, it was Fred’s turn to recklessly surrender possession before Abdoulaye Doucoure’s effort was saved by De Gea.
Worse for United, this weakness has often forced January signing Fernandes deeper to help progress his side’s play towards goal. Relieving the Portuguese international of this responsibility will enable him to make a difference where it counts – in front of goal.
In the summer transfer window, targets like Jadon Sancho will sell the shirts and add more dynamism to Solskjaer‘s front line, but a competent deep plying playmaker is what’s needed to give United balance.
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Watford need goals – swap Deulofeu and Pereyra
Watford have been abject in front of goal, and yet when you compare their forward players on paper with their fellow relegation rivals, you have to wonder why.
Roberto Pereyra and Gerard Deulofeu have never been famed for consistency, but they provide contrasting threats with similarly frightening potential. The Spaniard was notably brilliant last season, popping up on the right and through the middle at times with devastating effect. Meanwhile, his Argentine teammate has a long history of causing defenders headaches from the left.
So why of late, is Pereyra appearing to be frequently deployed on the right? In this game in particular it was a baffling call. Deulofeu’s strength is his one vs one ability, but he was put up against the best in the business at thwarting pacey wide players – Aaron Wan-Bissaka. On the other side of United’s defence was Luke Shaw, who has if anything looked more comfortable as a left-sided centre-back rather than a full-back. Surely pace and dynamism would have had far more of an impact on the right for Watford.
Deeney has battled admirably to try and bag enough goals to stop his side from sinking – but Watford must get more from those men either side of him to avoid the drop.
Martial is the main man up top (Sorry, Greenwood)
Everybody knows he wants to be the striker. In fact, whenever Greenwood was granted a chance to roam inside from his starting position on the right he didn’t need a second invitation, and got his goal as a result.
But Martial has asserted himself as the main man in recent weeks, and at a time when there is huge responsibility on his shoulders in the absence of Marcus Rashford. He now has three in his last three league games – the first time the Frenchman has achieved the feat since September 2017.
More impressive was the Eric Cantona-esque nonchalance of his delightful dink. It is often said that he has ice in his veins, and Martial has proved that once more today. United have a whole host of talent that can play as the focal point of their attack, but Martial is arguably the safest investment in that part of the pitch.
Anthony Martial has now scored 10 Premier League goals in back-to-back seasons for Man Utd.
Closing in on his best ever goal haul in a single PL campaign. pic.twitter.com/SL3vKSHLXM
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) February 23, 2020
Watford’s wastefulness is why they are relegation favourites
While Watford’s squad is by no means short of quality, its strongest links have misfired all season as a Championship level defence tries to punch above its weight against the best attackers in the world.
Nigel Pearson’s arrival sparked a promising resurgence, with clean sheets a-plenty and Deeney’s goals briefly dragging the Hornets out of the relegation zone. But they remain the joint worst attacking side in the league, wasting numerous chances in the first-half at Old Trafford.
How different could the game have been if Deeney had not hesitated with the first chance of the game? A jeering Old Trafford would have heaped pressure on United’s players – the perfect setting to hold on to a surprise win.
Instead Watford let their opponents off their hook, leaving their prospects of survival only looking more bleak.