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Manchester United 2 Watford 1 (30/03/2019) 31/03/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
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1- I’m again undergoing the process of trying to explain the following football thing to an unbeliever. You’ve all been there I’m sure… trying to describe your pastime?  way of life? without sounding trite, or puerile, trying to do it justice.

In any formal programme of training, the subtleties of service station encounters with opposing supporters would form part of an advanced course only.  Very much “Fully Operational”, this, way beyond “Basic Awareness” or “Working Knowledge”. After all, your uninterested subject is unlikely to progress quickly to the status of “Going Away”, where this most nuanced area of expertise is likely to be required.  The art of glancing casually at an opposing Port Vale shirt in passing for identification purposes is an expert skill, the balance between stroll and swagger as you pass opposing supporters takes practice, the knowledge of when to venture a “who’ve you got today mate?” or a “how’d you boys get on?” borne of experience.

Today there’s an additional angle.  Our companions for much of the M6 are Wolves, on their way to and from Turf Moor.  There’s a complex extra fraction of a second in these encounters, a fraction of a second that encompasses excitement, tension, fear, defiance and a shared understanding in a single glance. This is the filter over the whole day.  Team selection, outcome, perspective is all about next Sunday.

But for some reason nobody told the team.

2- With that “Next Sunday” filter on, more discussion than normal went into starting eleven speculation pre-match.  Full strength today, stiffs on Tuesday was a popular call (though in these days of Cleverley, Gray, Quina, Janmaat “stiffs” hardly feels appropriate any more).  Chuck a blanket over today as we tried to do at City, pick a tough team and split the first teamers over the two games accordingly another.

Rest the back four – the whole back four mind, at Old Trafford – start everyone else and go hell for leather wasn’t high on anyone’s list but that’s why Javi’s head coach and we’re not.

We were absolutely fabulous, to a man and from the very off.  Not least the “reserves” at the back;  Janmaat, only arguably a downgrade on Kiko in any case, and the dogged, focused Adam Masina in comfortably the best I’ve seen him in a Watford shirt rampaged up the wings.  Miguel Britos has been unfairly demonised over the last twelve months, splendid that if he is to return to Uruguay in the summer as trailed it’ll be on the back of thoroughly solid, competent displays like this.  And Christian Kabasele… he’s good at the stuff he’s good at, the brainfarts are what lets him down there was none of that today.  Aggressive, disciplined defending, as aggressive in fact as any situation permitted, often quite enjoyably so.

Part of the plan quite clearly, however, was to play in a way that made us less reliant on our defence than a rearguard action would be.  How bold, at Old Trafford of all places, to hammer at the opponent from the off.  How extraordinary to conjure a performance like this from a game of which little is expected a week before Next Sunday.

3- You’ll have noted the footnote, the caveat already.  A minor inconvenience:  we didn’t win the game.  We could have done, maybe should have done.  But none in the away end, surely, are entirely reliant on a result for their enjoyment of an away day, let alone an away day as the underdog and in every other respect the afternoon was magnificent.  Gentle sunshine, a bristling, ambitious, brave performance.  If you still felt like a bit of a nuisance as an away fan, a necessary evil amongst the many, presumably lucrative, accents and languages audible around the busy stadium perimeter then at least this treatment was less thoroughly objectionable than on previous visits.

For the first twenty minutes we were very much on the front foot.  Startlingly positive and assertive in fact as Troy kicked off an epic afternoon’s confrontation with Chris Smalling and Deulofeu, Bobby and Will Hughes started to ping the ball around.  The “20 shots” thing is a little misleading – several of these were shots in name only, rarely in danger of threatening the scoreline.  Nonetheless the game was being played in United’s half for the most part and if we weren’t yet frightening the home side they nonetheless looked rather affronted at the way things were turning out.

The threat was on the break, and we were largely attentive to it.  Marcus Rashford twice went down easily in the box, evidence of early discomfort with The Way It Was Going but the notorious Stuart Atwell was generally resilient to the Old Trafford effect and wasn’t having it.  When the crucial break came it was almost perfect and needed to be… we were caught, committing men forward on the right, Luke Shaw (“he’s a really odd shape” – Will) broke and played a perfect ball into Rashford’s arcing run and that was that.

Briefly we were on our heels.  United came at us, allowing Ashley Young some time in front of our corner as an attacking right back.  This permitted Dave and Will to wander off into a debate about how justified him getting stick was in the light of his ill-judged celebration at the Vic last season;  you can predict much of that exchange, which in fairness was more intelligent, informed and reasoned than many debates you’ll have heard recently.  Meanwhile on the pitch United fashioned one clear chance from their period of pressure;  in truth Martial should have scored as the ball came to him in unacceptable space in a frantic penalty area but Foster reacted immaculately to block his stabbed shot.  One-nil at half-time a slightly harsh reflection.

4- But if we’d started the first half encouragingly, the second half was simply tremendous.  We’ve talked about our current midfield before;  comparisons and superlatives are so abstract as to be almost meaningless.  How can you possibly compare these four to, say, Callaghan-Taylor-Jackett-Barnes in any meaningful way?

Absolutes are easier.  This midfield is bloody wonderful, but they’ve only rarely reached the collective heights achieved this afternoon.  Pereyra, the quietest of the four in recent weeks, was back in full matador effect, cutting inside from the left and slinging in a low shot that De Gea clawed away from the bottom corner.  Will Hughes was at his menacing, mischievous best, snapping into challenges one minute, orchestrating neat little triangles to prize open crossing opportunities the next. Deeney cushioned down to him, again, and he curled a shot with his weaker left foot around De Gea and, cruelly, the far post. Étienne Capoue snarled around the pitch, bullishly denying United possession and effortlessly spreading the play.  And Doucouré… well.  He’s destined for an arena like this, for a club like this and he looked every bit at home.  The leggy French midfielder dictating the game wasn’t Paul Pogba… in truth it was rather odd that United afforded him as much space as they did, but for the fact that when they tried to close him down he purred into a different dimension and bent himself away from attention anyway, so why bother?

5- The Stretford End had displayed a banner welcoming the newly confirmed Solskjaer prior to kick off.  The 20LEGEND slogan being replicated on advertising hoardings betrayed this as the corporate branding that it was rather than the voice of the support.  Nonetheless, if someone has to restore United to their former glories it might as well be someone as thoroughly likeable as the Norwegian, his post-match comments gracious and candid.  If you gave the slightest damn about United you might pause to wonder what sort of reaction this sort of performance, being outplayed and counterattacking at home – might have yielded under the previous incumbent.  But we don’t.

Smalling and Jones played considerable role in repelling the green tide of flicks, spins and triangles.  As United broke with their only worthwhile attack of the second half they got the bit of luck that we’d been denied.  No view of the goal from the away end, social media suggestions of offside proved groundless by TV footage.

But still we kept at them. How easy would it have been to shrug at this point?  To say “OK, we gave it a go…”.  Femenía, on for the injured looking Janmaat shortly after the break, roared and howled down the right… in any other era he’d be one of the team’s heroes.  Gray and Success were a statement of intent;  the latter failed to do much right but crucially provided the flicked assist to Doucs’ audacious, brilliant goal as one of those ping-ping passing routines finally played us through.  There was scarcely time to locate the kitchen sink, one free kick, one goalmouth scramble which briefly suggested the impossible before play was stopped for a foul.  And that was that.

6- Incredibly, we’d all but forgotten about Next Sunday.  Only briefly, as Capoue lay prostrate, as Troy limped briefly, as Deulofeu was hacked down did we remember.  Until we got to Sandbach and compared notes with some Wolves fans, feeling their bruises after a battering from Burnley.  “Jesus.  Can you imagine what Sunday will be like if Brighton actually beat City on Saturday”.  A terrified pause.  “Naaah, won’t happen”.

Here’s the thing.  Saturday’s gone, we lost.  Fine.  But we were completely brilliant.  Nobody who watched this game should have any concerns, not about Next Sunday, not about finishing seventh. We’re that good.

Bring on the next one.  Yooooorns.

Foster 4, Janmaat 4, Masina 4, Britos 4, Kabasele 5, *Doucouré 5*, Capoue 5, Hughes 5, Pereyra 5, Deulofeu 4, Deeney 4
Subs: Femenía (for Janmaat, 55) 4, Gray (for Deulofeu, 73) 3, Success (for Hughes, 0), Cathcart, Holebas, Quina, Gomes

Comments»

1. paullbaxter - 31/03/2019

It’s been a long time since I have seen us dominate a top team away from home. Great performance and agree that it’s even more so in the context of next week.

I don’t normally get exercised about journalist’s player ratings but some guy called Liam Prenderville took CBA about teams outside the top 6 to a new level. He critiqued all the United players giving them all 6 to 8 and said that Pogba was ‘ineffective’ for his 6. None of the Watford players merited a comment and they all got 6 apart from Deeney, Deulofeu and Pereyra who got 7s- presumably because he was the only Watford players that he had heard of. Doucoure who pretty much ran the midfield for the whole game got a 6 like Pogba. Unbelievable!

2. Roger Smith - 31/03/2019

Wolves defeat at Burnley should not fuel any hopes that Sunday will be a ride in the park. Like Watford, they ran the game but got nothing for it. COYH!

3. Graham Daly - 01/04/2019

Thanks Matt for a report that so captured the day. I don’t remember hardly ever enjoying a defeat before Sat. Watching Manure timewasting at the end was a joy – and their constipated crowd was another. Pogba was non-existent. If Doucs is going to leave, his agent should show all suitors a video of Pogba and doucoure on Sat -that should improve his price.
A couple of thoughts though.First , We need a bit more from Bobby pereyra – he’s made for these matches, and has the best touch of anybody. I thought 4 would have been right.
Second – Manure are so far behind Liddypool it must be embarrassing.
Attwell hasn’t improved much.
Cheers

Matt Rowson - 01/04/2019

Disagree on Atwell. Thought he did really well in the light of Rashford looking for pens, giving us decisions we deserved etc. The only one you might question is the foul against us at the end but not seen that again.

RS - 01/04/2019

Have to agree; what foul? Jones had already had a few minutes writhing in pain with cramp. Hey ho.

On another matter I never really get the vitriol directed at Ashley Young. Yes he scored and celebrated but how many years on and after a pretty useful transfer plus subsequent sell-on clause that probably spared WFC some significant financial embarrassment (I haven’t researched this properly so maybe need correcting)? He was a local lad who, I believe came through the club system and reasonably wanted more, I remain grateful for that free kick at Palace.

Matt Rowson - 01/04/2019

If you think for one minute that I’m reentering that one you are mistaken, good sir.

4. RS - 01/04/2019

Desperate measures as I endure a broken train in a belated return from the North West.

What about red v’s black v’s alabaster white shorts?

Socks? Anything?

Delay repay kicked in a while ago…


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