Smalling shows the way as 10-man United hang on after Matic is sent off
It was Rio Ferdinand who summed up how football’s natural order has been challenged so far this season by Watford when he offered his pre-match prediction. “I see Man United coming here and causing an upset,” he declared. And what followed was indeed a win for his old club, even if the depth to which Jose Mourinho’s team ultimately dug to end Watford’s perfect Premier League record also said much for their own limitations.
Beaten already on their travels south this season by Brighton and Hove Albion, United could take solace both from their spirit and the scoreline, but they remain a distance behind Liverpool and Manchester City both in points and the quality of their performances. Two goals in three first-half minutes effectively settled the match but, having shown just a brief glimpse of attacking flair immediately after Romelu Lukaku had put them into the lead, the second half was all about the solidity of their rearguard action.
The creaks were evident in Nemanja Matic being sent off following a series of fouls and then needing a wonderful David De Gea late save to deny Christian Kabasele, but they did hold out.
Luke Shaw’s concussion suffered on England duty meant Mourinho gave Ashley Young a start at left-back against his former club, and he was promptly booed whenever he touched the ball. That was actually quite frequently early in the match as United, backed by travelling fans who were loudly supportive of Mourinho, initially took the game to Watford.
Their first chance followed one of Young’s overlapping runs, but Paul Pogba’s shot from his cross was well saved by Ben Foster. Alexis Sanchez then created his own space with a darting run before again forcing Foster to parry the ball to safety. Watford had previously only conceded three goals this season and, having handled United’s brief flurry with some assurance, began themselves playing with purpose on the counter-attack.
Troy Deeney was especially influential in not just pressurising centrebacks Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelof, but also stepping into space in front of United’s back four and linking with Watford’s onrushing players.
Deeney had one shot very well saved by De Gea after winning possession earlier in the move and also helped create a good chance for Will Hughes.
The Watford supporters very audibly sensed vulnerability in United but, with Mourinho imploring his players forward, they suddenly struck twice shortly before half-time.
Marouane Fellaini was involved in both goals, first winning the ball inside Watford’s penalty area before Young’s deflected cross evaded the defence to allow Romelu Lukaku to chest his finish past Foster.
It was slightly fortuitous, but the impact on United was obvious and there was soon something approaching a swagger in their football. Pogba quickly forced another excellent save from Fos- ter with his left-foot volley before Smalling did double the advantage.
Fellaini had headed the ball to the edge of the six-yard box before Smalling, with his back to goal, superbly brought it down on his chest and swivelled to evade Watford right-back Daryl Janmaat and volley past Foster.
Watford re-emerged with purpose and, with United pinned back and seemingly more willing to play on the counter-attack, were rewarded when Abdoulaye Doucoure’s precise cross was side-footed past De Gea by an unmarked Andre Gray. Watford certainly had their chances to equalise but, with De Gea typically inspiring, United had their “upset”, although Mourinho was unimpressed it was so close.
“I am sorry we don’t have a camera in the dressing room because I told them what exactly happened – that it could be a match to win four or five nil, or to be in real trouble,” he told the BBC.
Gracia was phlegmatic – “if we are to lose, it is with this spirit and fight,” was his take – but for United this result was certainly timely, even if sterner tests await before the likes of Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City will be looking anxiously over their shoulders.
Volley good: Chris Smalling evades the Watford defence to turn and fire home the winning goal for Manchester United