Football Features

Watford condemn Man Utd to lowest Christmas benchmark since 1989

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 16:20, 22 December 2019

In an incredible afternoon of football, Watford beat Manchester United 2-0 at Vicarage Road.

This was the Hornets’ second win of the season and marked the first time they had seriously led so far in this campaign. Nigel Pearson’s tenure is really taking shape just as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s looks to be falling apart. What did we learn?

1. David de Whoer?

Who is this guy in goal for Manchester United? The indecisive goalkeeper who flaps at crosses? The weak-bodied guy who got absolutely mangled at Goodison Park for Everton’s equaliser? Yes that was a foul but the Manchester United ‘keeper also showed no backbone coming out for the ball. And then there’s today against Watford.

Ismaila Sarr shot at goal, and – look – shots are never easy to save even if that is the literal point of a goalkeeper. So the ball hits the ground and bounces up, and that’s always awkward, right? You have to adjust and grab the ball high as it floats gently towards your hands, that’s only what goalkeepers have been training to do since the age of 6 or 7 – it’s not easy to do! David De Gea could manage it, but this stranger that’s currently in goal for Manchester United has no chance at making such basic and routine saves. And he didn’t.

2. Watford have life in them

Two weeks ago, Watford looked dead and buried. Then they appointed Pearson and things have begun to whirr to life at Vicarage Road. Alright, they’ve not transformed into 2011 Barcelona and they owe this victory to two catastrophic blunders from Manchester United, but there was so much to like here.

After a valiant display at Anfield, the Hornets knew they had to do more at home. And do more they did. They pressed and harried Manchester United whenever the Red Devils advanced on them, never giving their visitors a moment’s peace in the key final third. Watford pushed Manchester United wide, forcing their creative players to win 1v1’s and then, if they managed to do that, could only funnel crosses into the box where the Hornets’ centre-backs comfortably dealt with them.

The win moves Watford onto 12 points, leaving them just six points from safety. They’re still bottom but now it’s just on goal difference and the vibe is so much more positive for the Hornets. Troy Deeney called it “massive” after the game, and that’s exactly what it is.

3. United’s Haaland pursuit has merit

People will be looking at Manchester United’s pretty obvious pursuit of striking sensation Erling Haaland and wondering why the hell the Red Devils are after a striker when they are so lacking in midfield structure? Well, part of the reason the midfield has such a hard time of things is that two thirds of the front three are just far too capricious.

Marcus Rashford is mostly consistent, but Anthony Martial can drift through an entire game before playing well for one minute and Daniel James simply isn’t fully ready to start in a Premier League on a game-by-game basis. Moreover their main alternative is Mason Greenwood, an 18-year-old whose deadshot finishing is so far ahead of the rest of his game he’s also not consistently reliable.

So what Manchester United need is another forward who is reliable. A fast, physical striker who can link with team-mates but primarily someone who can blow the top off the defence and be relied upon for consistent production. Haaland scored in five of the six Champions League group games he played this season and is a striker of enormous potential. Having him on the books would take so much pressure off the other Manchester United forwards, knowing that there’s another lethal forward out there. Someone who can score.

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4. Not a robot, maybe

Aaron Wan-Bissaka has been absolutely ridiculous so far this season. The Englishman signed for a whopping £60m from Crystal Palace and has been nearly flawless for the entire first half of the season despite getting almost no help from the wingers ahead of him or even the centre-back next to him.

He has performed with almost robotic consistency, but today we finally saw an error as he foolishly lunged in to make a needless tackle and concede the penalty that effectively killed the game off. After Wan-Bissaka made his first mistake for former club Crystal Palace, his then-manager Roy Hodgson said: “He actually made a mistake in the 94th minute and I was relieved because I was starting to think he might be a robot.”

That speaks to how good he is that any mistake is genuinely a shock. But here’s the thing, yes that tackle was poor but Wan-Bissaka might actually still be a robot because the way he recovered from that devastating mistake was absurd.

He just shook it off and went right back to making absurd diving tackles and unreal blocks. All Manchester United need to realise is that he’s best used as a defensive weapon to stop an opponent’s counter-attacks rather than thrust forward in order to attack.

5. Boy, that escalated quickly!

For 50 minutes, Manchester United’s trip to Watford was about as boring as Premier League matches tend to get. There was almost nothing going on bar one Jesse Lingard chance that, in fairness, he really should have buried. It was so dull.

Then almost out of nowhere Watford had a half-chance, Sarr was kind of open in the box but he scuffed his volley towards the goal when De Gea let the ball slip between his fingers. Less than five minutes later, Wan-Bissaka conceded a penalty with a baffling foul and Deeney made it 2-0.

Individual errors can happen, but for two to occur so quickly like that betrays the lack of leadership in the Manchester United side. If the side had true leadership on the field, a proper figure for everyone to follow, then that person would have taken command after De Gea’s initial blunder to settle everyone down.

Instead the Red Devils floundered around with no direction and then found the errors were cascading. Harry Maguire is the man wearing the armband and he quite simply has to do better because without leadership, Manchester United are always going to fold as easily as cheap paper, which will always undermine their attempts to become a proper footballing side.