Watford’s 100 percent record is at an end although United’s second half performance might mean that ‘crisis’ talk lingers in the background.
Andre Gray’s 65th-minute goal ended up as a consolation, after Romelu Lukaku and Chris Smalling struck before half-time, but it wasn’t as comfortable as it could have been for United, with David de Gea pulling off a vital last minute save.
Still, United won, and here are five genuine takeaways from the match at Vicarage Road.
Space to exploit around Watford
Part of what made the Hornets so hard to break down in their first four games was how compact they were in defence. The four-man midfield stayed narrow; the defence and forward lines were close together; they formed an impenetrable rectangle just in front of their own 18-yard-box reminiscent of 2015/16 Leicester City.
But the amount of space you can cover is always limited. Watford had space on the wings and a small area in behind the defence that United could exploit, if they wanted to.
It wasn’t until Mourinho’s side were already leading that they started to use the space on the wings, but their forwards had enough movement in behind to put Watford hearts in mouths at times. Watford’s future opponents may well take note.
And Watford brought back to Earth with a bump that was always going to happen
The Premier League’s preview show highlighted the fact that Watford’s were converting their shots at twice the rate that United were coming into the match.
While the 26 percent conversion rate that Javi Gracia’s side had had across the first four games bagged them four wins, it was never going to last. Depending on luck and quality of chances, a team’s conversion rate tends to average out at around 9-12 percent over a season.
Watford deserve credit for their early season performances, but something was always going to give.
Mourinho mentality talk might be justified
A recurring talking point that José Mourinho raises when praising or criticising players is their mentality.
The way that United switched off in the second half and allowed Watford back into the game might give weight to the emphasis that the manager places on it.
The team were too sloppy in the build-up to Gray’s goal, with the midfield full of holes and no-one taking responsibility for the area around the penalty spot where so many pull-backs are aimed.
Marouane Fellaini dropping between the centre-backs was useful in possession, meaning United could keep the ball more easily in safe areas to try and kill the game, but being there during the build-up to Gray’s goal was a mistake. Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic’s lapses in defence were shown up as well.
As the game went on, Fellaini and other midfielders continued to drop, United reverting to their 6-3-1 formation. Sometimes, the best way to defend is to be a little braver. And that comes from the manager…
Manchester United have mastered set-pieces
I’m not just talking about the fact they scored from two set-pieces, or the fact that they manufactured ways to give target man extraordinaire Fellaini the space to be target manned.
Ashley Young takes an outswing but then cuts it so it gets a vague inswing. 🤷♂️
— Ted Knutson (@mixedknuts) September 15, 2018
So that’s how to get around a lack of a good left-footed set-piece taker.
The way that United designed their set-pieces to make sure Fellaini free is worth noting as well.
Too often, in the past, the team’s play into him has been unimaginative, desperate, and only occasionally successful. By moving Fellaini to have a wider or further-out starting position, Watford were wary of putting a man tight on him.
This gave Fellaini both the space to operate, and a bit of a run towards where the ball ended up, making him even harder to defend.
Matic shows his value… and then shows his flaws
He may not have made a lot of key passes or last-ditch tackles, but this was a game that showed why José Mourinho likes having Matic in his side.
When United sleptwalked into ponderous passing around the midfield at 0-0, it was the Serb who was urging everyone around to pick up the pace.
It was one of the intangible things that Mourinho must be referring to when he talks about mentality, and makes you think that, if United had as strong a vocal presence defensively then David de Gea might have fewer saves to make.
And then he went and got himself sent off for a second yellow card in the last minute. Way to complicate a ‘5 things to takeaway’ piece Nemanja.