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Watford 2 Manchester United 0 (22/12/2019) 23/12/2019

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- There’s an edginess. Before kick-off, there’s an edginess. Nige has been around for a fortnight, but we’ve not seen a proper game yet.  Anfield was great but… you know.  As good a performance as could have been hoped for didn’t really scratch the surface.

Meanwhile matters are progressing without us, and defeat today will mean – as well as single-figure points at Christmas, maybe single-figure “goals for” also – a nine point gap to make up.  Yes, I still believed.  Yes, I think it still matters.  The size of the gap isn’t insurmountable in itself.  The fact that we can’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo makes it insurmountable.  But… but….  nine points.  “Now or never” might be overstating it.  But not by much.

The near-mythical João Pedro is presented before kick-off.  He’s stashed his cape for the moment, but he does a good line in waving confidently to the crowd.  No diffidence here, that’s a good thing.  A goal machine needs a bit of cockiness.  No pressure, son.

Over the tannoy, Nouvelle Vague’s version of “Making Plans for Nigel” has replaced the XTC original aired before Palace.  It’s a good tune, and apt.  We all want to see more of what Nigel’s plan entails.  It turns out there’s plenty to see.

2- The first and most striking element of which is the level of vigour and aggression in the performance.  Or to put it another way, we kick the living shit out of them from the off and it’s bloody wonderful.  We’re sharp into tackles and pouncing on any semblance of a second touch and it’s just what the team needs and just what the support needs.

At the vanguard is Will Hughes, redeployed as at Anfield in one of the two deeper central midfield positions.  He’s absolutely everywhere, a blond whirlwind who snarls into challenge after challenge.  The many appeals for him to be employed centrally rather than on the wing, as I understood it, hoped to take advantage of his quick feet and creativity.  Instead we have a John Eustace performance, and there are surely few higher compliments.

Second.  We have full back issues.  Full back issues at the best of times, arguably, but certainly so with one right back and two left backs out of action (or returning to fitness on the bench).  So we have Mapps at right back, where he started his first Premier League game thirteen years ago, and Kiko on the “wrong” side as at Anfield.  Against, you know, Manchester United and that.

And they’re great.  And they’re disciplined.  And the idea that Kiko isn’t really a full back, say, based on some nervy fretful performances earlier in the season, is completely dispelled.  This is aggressive and impressive and bolshy.

And helped by (third), similarly gutsy, disciplined performances by wide attackers Deulofeu and Sarr.  Both play their more traditional attacking roles with varying levels of success, we’ll come to that.  But the other thing, the new thing, the striking thing is the tracking back and the sticking a foot in and the not leaving people alone and then charging back upfield to rejoin the attack.

The first half is tight and scruffy, and United get the better of the chances through Martial, who slips a shot wide, and Lingard, who is played through when a worryingly simple ball over the top peels us open.  His lob is too high.  Perhaps that was a break for Nige, the break that Quique didn’t get when Craig Dawson didn’t score his late header against Sheffield United.  But we look tough and emboldened and up for this, and if the lingering concern is that we still aren’t creating an awful lot then that kicking of opponents up in the air mentioned previously, abetted by a tolerant performance by Lee Mason, is providing entertainment value.

3- United, meanwhile, look a bit like us in some respects.  I mean… not, obviously.  Because however this is going to turn out (no spoilers), we’re still going to be bottom and United’s relative failure still involves being in the top half of the table.  Nonetheless.  If our season can be summed up at all it’s in being kind of OK at some things but critically not OK at others which undermine the half good bits.

And that’s where United are really.  Because the speed and agility of their forwards is quite something, and every now and again it clicks and it’s pretty devastating but only briefly.  Only briefly because we’re in their faces, but also because their midfield isn’t moving the ball anything like quickly enough.  And because they’ve not got anything for the ball to stick to up front, no presence.

At the back, Win-Bissaka is a monster.  He’ll give away the penalty in the second half but one on one he’s tremendous.  Otherwise though… the defence is get-attable.  Good bits, and not so good bits that make the good bits slightly redundant.

A different level of inadequate though, obviously, which is why you have to be a little bit apprehensive as we start the second half.  If we can’t score, can we at least continue to keep United at arm’s length and maybe, maybe snaffle something. Maybe.

4- But as you’ll know that’s not how it turns out at all.  During the interval Felix pleads for a lucky break, the sort of lucky break that we’ve been desperate for all season.  And we observe that if we grab a lead we’re rather well set up to defend it.

And lo.  Merry Christmas one and all.  A Will Hughes free kick from the left (Fourth:  Gerry’s nowhere near the set piece deliveries), and it’s flicked on and then Sarr is contorting himself to propel the ball towards the top corner.  It should be no threat.  It is no threat.  Except that somehow de Gea loses his concentration, perhaps with half a mind on not colliding with the goalpost and the ball has squirmed through his grasp and it’s in.  My God it’s in.  Sarr can’t believe it, we’re remembering what celebrating a goal feels like and de Gea, significantly, is displaying no stoicisim whatsoever.  He’s flat out.

Within minutes it’s two as Sarr takes advantage of United’s evident befuddlement and goes for the jugular.  The jugular reacts rather anxiously to this development and after a brief delay for a VAR check in which David de Gea tries to gain some sort of control over the situation with a bit of gamesmanship but it doesn’t matter.  At all.  I think we’d all been hoping for one of those “Troy hammers the ball through the goalkeeper” efforts but first goal of the season moments are significant, even for Troy, and it’s a more careful slot down the middle and away from the diving keeper.  The effect is the same, and now the roof comes off.

And for the rest of the game, we’re pretty magnificent.  Troy’s flame has burned every more brightly as the game progresses and he’s an absolute monster for most of the second half.  It’s easier to dominate the forward line and win every header when nobody’s anywhere near you of course, but the reason nobody’s anywhere near Troy is that he’s already battered them out of the way.  It’s a huge effort, and something we’ve missed an awful lot.

Changes are made, the most effective of which sees Pogba bring some strength, elegance and grease to United’s midfield.  In there, as throughout, there are blocks and tackles and one particularly startling save from Ben Foster who is big and deliberate throughout.

And then it’s done.

5- So this is all manner of new stuff.  We’ve remembered what it feels like to watch the end of a game with fingers clasped into scalp, waiting for the final whistle.  What it’s like to stumble up Occupation Road grinning stupidly whilst realising for the first time how sore your throat is, stopping to share a bear hug with someone who’s obviously in the same place as you.

We’ve remembered what it’s like to have an effective, aggressive, potent team capable of hurting others.  No, this isn’t a great Manchester United, but it’s still Manchester United and suddenly the gap to saefty is only six points.  And as above, the biggest problem wasn’t the margin as much as our apparent inability to do anything close to attacking it.

That may have changed.

There’s a difference between “probably” and “definitely”.

Merry Christmas.


Foster 4, Mariappa 4, Femenía 4, Cathcart 4, Kabasele 5, Capoue 4, *Hughes 5*, Doucouré 4, Sarr 4, Deulofeu 4, Deeney 5
Subs: Chalobah (for Doucouré, 69) 3, Pereyra (for Capoue, 77) NA, Success (for Sarr, 87) NA, Dawson, Masina, Gray, Gomes


1. Jez Fayerman - 23/12/2019

First match my eight month old daughter has sat and watched on TV with me and the boys here in deepest Scotland. Clearly she is some kind of lucky charm – I wonder if I can persuade my wife that we must all spend Boxing Day afternoon in front of Amazon Prime? Based on yesterday’s starting XI’s and their performances how many United players would have made a combined team? I would suggest not one. Would probably have Pogba on the bench though! Merry Christmas to all Hornets around the world!

PEDantic - 23/12/2019

We Hornets must all show solidarity with the team, whether 8 months or 80 years old. Your wife has no say in this.

2. Harefield Hornet - 23/12/2019

A great performance from both coaches on the line too. Shouting and cajoling for the ninety minutes. Whenever United attacked in the 2nd half it looked like we had 20 defenders behind the ball – but we still always looked like a threat on the break. Now the question is can we keep the intensity generated for the last 2 games against the likes of Sheffield United, Villa, Wolves etc? Time will tell but we’re in a much better place than were a few weeks ago. It’s ridiculously early days but this no-nonsense straight talking duo who have landed here almost by accident could be the best thing we’ve seen here for a long time.

3. John - 23/12/2019

Brilliant Matt, as always! Had me excited all over again! Thanks

4. Captain Ping Pong - 23/12/2019

Great report as always Matt. Yesterday was enjoyable for any number of reasons, shape, commitment, skill and sheer bloody-mindness! The new boss has something about him, which has installed some hope – where many of us may have accepted our fall from grace.

Hope and pray, that the win has given the lads and the fans some vim in our fight to stay in the Premier League. If we play like that and take at least some the chances we create, we have a good chance. As Nige would say – lets worry about ourselves first …

5. Roger Smith - 23/12/2019

Good report as usual. I thought Deulofeu missed a trick or two when he won possession and played it back. Instead of sprinting past the full back and taking a pass over the top, he stayed put and waited for a possible return pass.

6. Ray Knight - 23/12/2019

Geat analysis Matt. My son went to the match so I rely on your in-depth and balanced account. All the media concentrate on Manure errors and woes, not our improvement. The main thing is that our performances are improving and confidence will breed success. Great opportunity now to dig ourselves out of the hole. Although we are playing a proper united next time out hope is returning. A Merry Xmas to you all.

7. david - 23/12/2019

On these pages a couple of weeks back I commented that Hughes does not have the physicality to play centre mid. How wrong I was, he was amazing yesterday.

Merry Christmas everyone.

8. Essex Horn - 23/12/2019

One of the big improvements for me yesterday was timing and selection of the substitutions. Instead of just becoming defensive and trying to hold on, they were positive and kept the game plan that had been working. It definitely made the last ten minutes less nervy.

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