International hangover? Or the signs of challenges ahead? James Walker-Roberts assesses Manchester United’s narrow win over Watford…
A win is a win, especially at this stage of the season, and especially with a top-four place at stake, and especially after back-to-back defeats. But Manchester United’s 2-1 victory over Watford was not the ‘Ole Gunnar Solskjaer coronation’ that might have been expected.
The pre-match atmosphere was bubbly enough.
Chants of ‘Ole, Ole, Ole’ rang out before kick-off, while a large banner was unveiled in the Stretford End to celebrate Solskjaer becoming permanent manager. Watford looked like ideal opponents for Solskjaer’s side to put on a show due to their poor recent record at Old Trafford and the potential of having one eye on their FA Cup semi-final next weekend.
- Man Utd 2-1 Watford
- Ole sets top-three target
But for those expecting a smooth ride now that Ole’s at the wheel for the long term, this was a reality check of the potentially tricky road ahead.
United’s preparation for the game had not been ideal with several injury issues to contend with following the international break. It looked like the main cause for concern might be the defence, as centre-backs Victor Lindelof and Eric Bailly both missed out.
That saw Solskjaer deploy a four-man defence, of which three – Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Ashley Young – also started Louis van Gaal’s first few games in charge.
Given that was nearly five years ago, and Young will soon turn 34, it is not surprising that Gary Neville said this week that United need to strengthen their backline in the summer.
“Defence is the main priority in terms of getting the centre-back pairings right because there have been so many changes,” said the former United defender. “I think the defence is actually doing very well, it looks makeshift on paper but it out-punches its weight when you think about it.”
United’s defence did ‘out-punch its weight’ again against Watford, but it would be hard to see United challenging for the title next season with this back four week in, week out, or even on a semi-regular basis.
Going back to Van Gaal; it was he who suggested this week that despite the improved atmosphere and improved results, the style of football under Solskjaer is not too dissimilar to how the team has played in previous years, when there has been a fair share of criticism directed at Van Gaal and Jose Mourinho.
“Now there is another coach who parks the bus and plays on the counter. The main difference between Mourinho and Solskjaer is that Solskjaer is winning,” Van Gaal told the BBC.
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“The way Manchester United are playing now is not the way (Sir Alex) Ferguson played. It is defensive, counter-attacking football. If you like it, you like it.”
Van Gaal’s viewpoint can be debated, but this was a performance that only emphasised his point.
United did not ‘park the bus’ deliberately, as they did in some gritty and forgettable away displays under Mourinho, but they largely played on the counter, allowing Watford possession for long periods and defending in their own half.
Solskjaer might be satisfied that the defence coped reasonably well, considering they did not concede until the 90th minute, but the midfield did not do the back four any favours.
It was expected that Paul Pogba’s dip in attacking production might be lifted by the return of Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matic, but none of them had any impact on the game.
Pogba, who has been talked up by Real Madrid head coach Zinedine Zidane, had no attacking influence and was careless with the ball at times. Matic looked laboured and Herrera was replaced after an hour following an ineffective display. Juan Mata, who along with Herrrera is out of contract in the summer, was also sluggish.
Solskjaer hinted at the midfield struggles afterwards when he said: “We couldn’t keep the ball today.”
It is perhaps significant that Pogba has just returned from international duty with France, where he played the entirety of both games, and Herrera and Matic have recently returned from injuries. Also, United were impacted far more by injuries and international absentees than Watford, who only had one starter returning from international duty – Roberto Pereyra.
However, although there are mitigating circumstances, United’s performance might suggest that this summer could be a big one in the transfer market.
“There is a lot of hard work still to do in the coming months and years to get Man Utd back to where it was before,” said Neville this week.
But there are some positive signs.
Firstly, if United do spend wisely then it should be encouraging for supporters that they have some building blocks for a team that could potentially challenge for silverware.
Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial are both exciting young talents, Pogba has shown under Solskjaer that he can run games, Lindelof has improved, David de Gea remains one of the best goalkeepers in the world, and Luke Shaw was excellent against Watford.
There is also Solskjaer, who has not just lifted the mood since his arrival, but has made some important selections and tweaks during his time in charge of United.