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Manchester United 1 Watford 0 (09/01/2021) 10/01/2021

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- As I get older, my recollections of my first Watford games are increasingly restricted to isolated sensations, memories, and often freeze-frames.

The Cup Final.  The first one.  Younger than Daughter 2 is now.  Yellow and blue aeroplanes duelling over the Wembley pitch (I think we lost that one too).  April 1986, slightly arbitrarily.  Newcastle United at home.  Watching from the family enclosure as a 20 year-old Nigel Gibbs lies face down in the turf in front of me.  Behind him the slightly perverse image of Gary Porter, all 5ft 5 of him, squaring up to perpetrator Billy Whitehurst, a brick shithouse of a centre-forward.  Manchester United at home, May 1985.  Luther has been carried off with a fractured skull, it turned out, after a knee in the head from Gary Bailey.  Physio Billy Hails returning to the bench and wringing his sponge out into a bucket in front of the family enclosure.  “Oh my God, that’s blood!” exclaims my aunt.

Whatever freeze frames we retain from the last twelve months or so of football will be almost exclusively two dimensional at best.  Limited to what the TV cameras are able, choose to reveal, moulded by the opinions of the pundits.  These are probably more informed than the opinion of The Bloke Behind You in fairness but…  you lose the ability to take it all in.  To use all your senses to immerse yourself in the spectacle.  To look where you want to look, to allow yourself to find a perspective that others aren’t paying attention to (as an aside, I maintain that I was the only person in the Rookery who saw our counterattack thunder towards us in the 2013 Leicester game in the wake of already raucous penalty save celebration, but that’s by the by).  You don’t get to feel the prickle of cold on the back of your neck, to submerge yourself into the collective anxiety and excitement of the stands.  Second rate freeze-frames at best, however sharp the image, however revealing the camera angle.

2- What few of us will have is a freeze frame of a victory at Old Trafford.  There’s only been one, of course…  Luther again, 1978.  Before my time, just about.  Instead we have memories of an array of creative different flavours of defeat.  There’s the run-of-the-mill variety, like in 1987.  There was a lot to like about Worrell Sterling, but him being our man-of-the-match always flagged a bad team performance.  There’s been unlucky ones, comprehensive ones (BBC), frustrating ones. This never looked likely to do anything other than add to that catalogue;  had it done otherwise this report would have been rattled together in a fit of excitement by first thing Sunday morning rather than… well, whenever I get it done.

Which doesn’t therefore imply any besmirching of Xisco’s fledgling record necessarily. With the comparative luxury of three whole weeks without a midweek fixture of all things, now was instead a time to study his playing of his cards, to draw what conclusions we can about the new man from the decisions he makes.  Whatever the rights and wrongs of our rapid turnover of head coaches, we shouldn’t deny ourselves such pleasures as the circumstance offers.

And there was plenty to chew over in team selections, substitutions, set-up today.  Omissions of Deeney, Femenía and Cleverley from the travelling squad was not, ostensibly, down to COVID since the club confirmed that no positive tests had arisen from the increased testing last week.  No mention of injury either…  if the absentees were selectively rested, that’s a bold call in itself with the proportion of senior pros on an ever-more injury restricted bench dropping further.

Beyond that there was interest in the deployment of players on their “weaker foot”, seemingly encouraging players to come inside.  Debutant Zinckernagel, we are told, can play anywhere across the front line but is right-footed and was deployed primarily on the right by Bodø/Glimt.  He’s fielded on the left throughout.  Later on Ken Sema is brought off the bench and spends a diligent but awkward fifteen minutes on the right flank before Zinckernagel’s removal sees him switch back to the left.  Simultaneously Jeremy Ngakia came on for Adam Masina for another uncomfortable shift at left back – more out of necessity than choice perhaps in the absence of Kiko.

3- With Zinckernagel making his debut – albeit only three weeks after the end of the Norwegian season – as well as first starts of the season for Hughes and Masina, a second start for Navarro, a first start for over a month for João Pedro and for three weeks for Troost-Ekong it’s little surprise perhaps that we started slowly.

But we did start slowly.  Two minutes in Marc Navarro was ushering Dan James into the box to force a save out of Daniel Bachmann.  A couple of minutes later a corner was allowed to reach Scott McTominay, comfortably the dominant player on the pitch, who headed down into the ground and got a bit of luck as the ball rebounded upwards and beyond Bachmann’s reach into the top corner.  Felt like it was going to be a long evening at that stage.

So the most obvious positive from the encounter was that we didn’t crumble.  Ten minutes into the anticipated onslaught with United looking lively and positive, you noticed that the collapse hadn’t actually happened, that we were holding our shape and holding our own.  Philip Zinckernagel started the game ambling around like the kid on the playground who’s splitting his time between participating in the game and discussing last night’s episode of Red Dwarf with his mate but he picked the pace up and every touch was bullish and purposeful.  Quarter of an hour in Will Hughes – who if not back at full throttle nonetheless snapped and rattled around the midfield encouragingly – sent in a free kick which João Pedro flicked on to Masina beating the offside trap for Henderson to block his shot.

We looked a threat at set pieces, would you believe, Sierralta’s obvious physical threat a problem.  Navarro looked nervous defensively but demonstrated an ability to put a decent curling ball into the box.  Sarr threatened to escape a couple of times, João Pedro had some nice touches.  Much was made by Glenn Hoddle on comms of the danger of being exposed in the middle, Chalobah and Hughes overwhelmed by weight of numbers, but it didn’t really happen.  Half time snuck up on everyone with the Hornets more than hanging on.

4-  Except.  Except.  If we weren’t being overrun, if our discipline and shape was containing a now stuttering United and Bachmann tested (and meeting those tests) only rarely, if we were demonstrating the suggestion of a threat then the concern is that suggesting was all we were doing.  For all that Andre Gray was lively and energetic, for all that Nathaniel Chalobah was able to lash a couple of drives wide of goal the suggestion of a threat never developed into actual threat.  Harsh, perhaps…  we’d have taken an honourable 1-0 defeat with both hands five minutes in and there’s immense encouragement to be taken from what followed in terms of both attitude and organisation.

But not in end product.  Not in actual goal threat.  And yes, this was “only” the Cup against an experienced and capable Premier League side, further strengthened throughout the second half as Solskjær followed the introduction of Maguire before the break with Martial, Rashford, Matic.  But it’s the overriding challenge.  Sarr and João Pedro in particular ooze with the suggestion of a threat, from which we’re not moulding actual threat nearly often enough.

It’s the nagging concern as the second half progresses, much as keeping the scoreline at 1-0 whilst getting minutes into some of those returning legs is an achievement in itself, much as there’s an awful lot more to like about the character of the side than not.  Xisco has limited options on the bench but isn’t afraid to use them, dipping into the benchwarmers when Joseph Hungbo, recently recalled from loan, is brought on for a likably energetic if largely impotent fifteen minutes in place of Zinckernagel.  The second “but” of the evening arrives when Chalobah grabs his hamstring and is replaced by Phillips.  You won’t find me complaining about Dan Phillips seeing some action at any stage in any game, but we’re thin enough on the ground in midfield without losing Chalobah too.

5- The game ends with Hornets heads held high and yet no real suggestion that the course of the evening was about to change at any point beyond the fifth minute.  A cynic might say that, in the circumstances, honourable defeat which doesn’t mash our confidence but doesn’t add fixtures to an already congested January and February is a very decent outcome.  There’s truth in this, but we wouldn’t have had any reservations had we pulled it out of the bag.

And as for Xisco… so far so good.  Still saying the right things.  His team is work in progress but looks punchier and more assertive than it has done for most of the season despite limited manpower.  Watch this space.


Bachmann 3, Navarro 3, Masina 3, Sierralta 3, Troost-Ekong 3, Sarr 3, Chalobah 3, *Hughes 3*, Zinckernagel 3, João Pedro 3, Gray 3
Subs:  Sema (for Sarr, 58) 3, Ngakia (for Masina, 58) 2, Wilmot (for Troost-Ekong, 76) NA, Hungbo (for Zinckernagel, 76) NA, Phillips (for Chalobah, 84) NA, Dalby, Crichlow, Barrett, Foster


1. Harefield Hornet - 10/01/2021

Yes this felt a little bit like an opportunity lost? Similar to the 0-1 reverse in the League a couple of years ago when Iggy should have passed to Troy a bit more often and we ended up getting turned over by a free kick. United were understrength through injuries that night as opposed to conserving energy as they were last night. It all just felt like an exercise in stretching some legs without getting spanked and then going off to concentrate on the league. Mission sort of accomplished I suppose?

2. Mark Scholfield - 10/01/2021

Why do you think Munoz played Sema on the right and the new boy on the left.Then he brought the right footed Ngakia on for the left footed Masina on the left. And why weren’t Kiko and Cleverly ( v his old club ) not even on the bench? Very strange indeed.

Matt Rowson - 11/01/2021

Answered the first question in te pieces. The second… presume resting them? Cleverley has certainly bern running himself into the ground.

3. Ray Knight - 11/01/2021

Thanks Matt. A great summing up. Agree that Munoz is resting a few players for when we resume two matches a week. Also trying to make the players more adaptable by playing them out of position. We have become quite predictable in some cases. Also with injuries and the spectre of COVID-19 means we will have to be prepared in advance. Again I don’t think we are in the market for a LB now Masina is back. Our striker situation is now a big concern as we cannot afford anyone decent. Good to see JP back though and a much better performance once we settled down with solid debut for PZ. Bachmann is looking a decent keeper. Some are calling for Sarr to be sold to Wet Spam. Absolute madness. Once we have paid off Rennes what would we have left? Diddly squit I say, enough to buy Max Watters? Not enough I say to replicate Sarr’s pace and skill. Different (lesser) quality. Next few weeks will give us the answers. Faith in Munoz to get the best out of the squad. COYHs!

Matt Rowson - 11/01/2021

Agree Ray. Whether or not we have the ideal set of strikers we do have, in Deeney, Gray, Perica, Success, Joao Pedro with or without Murray, a range of weapons. We also have Djibril Touré arriving in January… (arrived, technically? was due to sign Jan 1st). Can’t expect an 18 year old from Guinea to come in and lead the line but he might add something different off the bench.

4. Steve G - 11/01/2021

“Isolated sensations, memories, and often freeze-frames” … indeed so! Half a century ago, now, and another day when we went down to an honourable defeat to United. To be honest, I don’t remember anything much about the game itself – indeed, before checking with your invaluable bible, Matt, I’d remembered this as a 3rd round tie in 1968, as opposed to the 4th round replay in 1969. However, what is etched in my memory is that adrenaline rush of excitement and, frankly, fear at times, from being a part of that 34,000+ record crowd. I think we must have got to the ground really early as I do remember being right at the front and, more crucially, only a few yards away from the point where the perimeter fence and wall gave way under the pressure of spectators who spilled out on to the dog track that surrounded the pitch in those days. The warning signs were there (and ignored) for the tragedy that was to unfold at Hillsborough two decades later.

Matt Rowson - 11/01/2021

Thanks Steve, evocative and startling stuff. Far from the only neglected warning I suspect.

Mike Smith - 14/01/2021

I was at Old Trafford in 69. Scullion scored early on & it was only a mistake by keeper Mickey Walker late in the game that let in Dennis Law for the equaliser. Replay delayed because of the weather but still exciting. Happy days to go with Luther scoring 2 in 78. My 3rd wedding anniversary & my wife drove me & my mates home!

5. Old Git - 11/01/2021

Duncan Welbourne hit the bar in that game all those years ago and Rodney Green had an equaliser disallowed after an adjudged foul on Alec Stepney. And my friend Paul had a bad attack of diarrhoea whilst trapped in the crowd on the Vicarage Road terracing, with hilarious consequences. (not to him though). Some games are more memorable than others, for a variety of different reasons.

6. simmos - 11/01/2021

I don’t feel we are far away from being a decent side but what we seem to lack is an Almen Abdi and a Matty Vydra.

Harefield Hornet - 11/01/2021

2 wonderful players on their day for different reasons. One of the finest finishers we’ve ever had and a majestic midfielder who made football look effortless – and could also score spectacular goals. What have the Pozzos ever done for us eh?! 😊

7. petebradshaw - 11/01/2021

Thanks Matt as always. 1978 was one of the best ever games obviously but made sweeter for me for being driven up from uni in Nottingham by Utd fans and then going round to parents* of one of them for a drink before setting off back home. The plaudits were very welcome and the feeling of smug delight lasts longer than any actual memories of the game. Be nice to win there again sometime…

PS Before the game, Jon Marks reported Deeney being injured.

*Yes, United fans who lived, you know, near Old Trafford. That was always my experience. The “United fans live in Surrey” thing has always irked me as a result (even if it is true).

8. Ray Knight - 13/01/2021

I am already feeling nostalgic when I think of the Capoue/ Doucoure combination in their pomp. The 17 year old Chalobah was majestic and the control/ vision of Abdi in midfield. Just makes one realise you don’t know what you have until it’s gone. Hoping Hughes gets back to form and PZ hits the ground running. We need a good run and the next 5 as they say are all winnable.

9. Bradders - 17/01/2021

Thank you for the comments a nice lift in the ongoing lockdown. All the best to everyone and especially Matt for allowing us to remember happier times. Awesome.

Matt Rowson - 17/01/2021

Cheers Bradders. Hang in there.

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