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Manchester United 0 Watford 0 (26/02/2022) 27/02/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- It’s difficult to know how to react to seismic world events.  

However terrible, however consequential, however affecting, and presuming that such events are taking place at a distance, on a TV screen rather than in the next street, there’s a stifling sense of impotence that comes with major developments.  And if, for example, there’s a woman in the office who explodes passionately, fervently and perhaps even slightly seriously with a determination to take arms and head for Ukraine then she’ll be subdued into inertia by the awkward silence that follows, to which the subtext is “how about a cup of tea instead?”.

Perhaps nothing will change until people do react dramatically and overcome their inertia, and this means not just Ukraine (or even particularly Ukraine, since Russia’s troops would surely see limited deterrent in an overweight 49 year-old statistician with a pointed stick) but any of the outrages perpetrated in the name of (different groups of) the people in recent years.  Until that point, the only available course of action is to carry on.

An so here we are, carrying on, making our way along the Bridgewater Canal towards Old Trafford past the loading yards boasting mountains of crates claiming origins from Hamburg to China.  When we get to the stadium there’s little evidence of what’s going on elsewhere in the world and plenty of people just carrying on…  as we make our way back – somehow perpetually against the flow of bodies – at the end of the game one of the tunnelled walkways under Old Trafford briefly explodes into “Putin is a wanker!” which is at least something, even if it effectively boils down to less than a pointed stick.

2- There is, famously, a lot to be said for just carrying on in trying circumstances, as we will demonstrate today.  We are helped on our way by the fact that, as has been the case for a decade or so now, this is no longer that Manchester United.  No longer a side so driven and dynamic and well coached that the psychological burden of trepidation on the visiting team is enough to smooth over many of the home side’s relatively bad days.  Awful home defeats to Crystal Palace notwithstanding (and apologies, but midweek reporting capability remains patchy at best) it says a lot that it was possible to squint at this and say “you know what, maybe…”, surely inconceivable as a relegation threatened club at Old Trafford “back in the day”.

“I’ve heard of him!” proclaims Daughter 2 as we make our way past the Sir Alex Ferguson stand.  Since she was only four when United’s figurehead stepped down this was not to a given but she’s here today having never been to Manchester, and finds a place hamstrung by a sense of presumptuous entitlement no longer substantiated by what goes on on the pitch.  This is evident in the grotesquely complacent, underloved stadium and in the treatment of visiting supporters that is in stark contrast with the charm offensive ever more evident at other grounds.  You wouldn’t expect the token gesture of yellow, black (AND RED) shirts on the staff in the kiosks here – £2.50 for a bottle of water decanted into a flimsy plastic pint glass is much more on brand.

On the pitch the unreasonable level of expectation is surely a millstone around the necks of younger United players in particular, but nobody embodies the presumptuous entitlement more absolutely than the preening totem that is Cristiano Ronaldo.  “Lionel Messi, he’s better than you” is a predictable enough chant that he’ll have heard a thousand times before.  “Ken Sema, he’s better than you” perhaps less frequently.

Nonetheless, whilst he may no longer be the best/second best player in the world he’s more than good enough to cause us problems underneath all that hair gel.  In the opening minutes he receives a ball from the right as Cathcart slips in the area and plants a shot past Foster and off the face of the post.  So much for “keep it tight, boys”.

3- The Rowson clan are out in some force today;  Dad’s here, and Will has brought his herberts over from Leeds.  The younger of the two is a girl after my own heart, earnestly clutching an A5 sheet of paper and a purple marker to count off shots, cards, corners and goals from both teams.  The reverse of the sheet is reserved for “Ben Foster being brilliant”, and will receive the most attention.

United are all over us.  Not in a “this is coming” kinda way, not an irresistible wave of red shirts… but we’re very much second best nonetheless.  An offside-looking Fernandes breaks through to be denied brilliantly, bravely by Foster, and soon after drives a shot through that bounces off an affronted looking Ronaldo and away.  Ronaldo converts a Telles cross only to be rightly pulled back for a narrow offside – as at Arsenal, had our defending been slightly less incompetent, the otherwise impeccable Samir slow to react as Ronaldo sprang past him, the Portuguese might have been played onside and scored anyway.  

Foster was out quickly again at the feet of Ronaldo. Fernandes contrived to shovel a left wing cross wide, and then headed over after Ronaldo broke but was forced wide by Foster’s advance.  That incident had been preceded by Louza snarling into a loose ball but then having his ankle trodden on, seemingly accidentally, by Fred who initiated the break.  Our midfield trio throughout looked suddenly utterly convincing, as at Villa Park – Louza hungry for the ball despite pressure at the back of the trio, Sissoko enjoying his best game for a while and bullying Pogba and co in the middle of the park, Cleverley sustaining his fervent energy long enough to be applauded from all sides on his 80th minute withdrawal.

Nonetheless, our limited success and confidence in front of goal of late and Roy’s conservativism mean that our threat on the break is limited.  That’s not a knock at Roy necessarily, and maybe if and as things improve our counters will be coupled with a confident cutting edge that renders them more effective. Here, though, Sissoko’s most effective charge of the half sees him, perhaps wisely, opt against a shot to square to Sarr instead, the winger being smothered out as this attack went the way of several others.

Meanwhile in the corner in front of us the linesman executes the first of a peculiar trio of calls, suggesting an innate moral objection to the ball being shepherded out of play by awarding a corner for an imperceptible touch by the shuffling and baffled Kamara.  The same official will repeat the trick twice more in similar circumstances, but in general the apprehension of being officiated by Kevin Friend at Old Trafford proves unsubstantiated… indeed, he resists the temptation to award the home side a spot kick for Cathcart’s surgically precise tackle on Elanga, whose momentum takes him over it.  VAR confirms the call – a second half appeal by Ronaldo after he deliberately runs into Kamara, falls over and sits with his arms outstretched in outrage doesn’t even earn that – nor, indeed, any support from his team mates who one presumes have seen this before.  As he slows up, perhaps Ronaldo is reverting to the gravitationally challenged bad habits of his first days at Old Trafford.


4- In the aftermath of Wednesday’s disappointment against Palace it’s worth reflecting that, after weeks and months of objections of a lack of on pitch plan or identity we now, unequivocally and indisputably, have one.  It may prove inadequate as we run out of road and has thus far demonstrably been unsuccessful at Vicarage Road (though the nadir remains Norwich, pre-Hodgson, who inherited a run of five consecutive home defeats which now stretches to seven).  But it’s there, and has yielded an unlikely looking four points from two difficult away trips in a week after less rewarded reasons for optimism in Roy and Ray’s first two.  

To reiterate, whilst we were second best here, to varying degrees, throughout the game we earned a point through a combination of the plan being sound, the plan meaning that being a bit lucky was enough to get that draw, and of hanging in there.  Of keeping going.  Of having the strength of mind and purpose not to be phased by narrow squeaks, just as so much of Luther’s success even longer ago than Sir Alex was based on not being phased by missing chances.  

And the second half was an improvement on the first in terms of balance of play.  United brought on Sancho who played down the left and was a similarly sprightly, ineffective threat to that suggested at Vicarage Road earlier in the season.  Never been the same player since he left Watford. He faced Craig Cathcart for the most part, since Roy opted to replace Jeremy Ngakia with the seemingly back in the fold (good!) Christian Kabasele.  The first half had seen both full backs display their characteristic vulnerable exuberance but Ngakia, in to cover the unexplained absence of Kiko, more nervously.  

United’s chances were generally fewer and further between after the break but this wasn’t saying a lot and they still fashioned openings that might have punished us on a bad day… Elanga started and ended the most fluid move of the game, an interplay of such startling elegance that it woke the home stands up if only briefly  (explaining what “ground full of tourists” was all about took much of the walk back to the car).  Later in the game, just as we were thinking that maybe however stoic the defending and however good the plan United had to get a break eventually Fernandes’ cross hit Cristiano Ronaldo and Foster gratefully scrambled to the loose ball.  In a last act of defiance, Samir executed an inhuman block to deny Fernandes as United pushed.

We had attacks too though, and if we were still second best at least we were throwing a few punches.  King, who struggled on the left for much of the game, fed Dennis whose sharp shot was killed by an unfavourable deflection.  Sarr, who occasionally looked as if he’d been restrained from attacking with abandon, surged through and fed Dennis; his effort was blocked, De Gea was beaten to the high ball and Kamara cut inside to shoot excitedly over.  Juraj Kucka came off the bench for a dynamic, chest-beating cameo – Dave, who had started the game by drumming on my back as if he was the sugar-high primary school child but mercifully calmed down, suggested that this was the role he should have been playing all season, agent of chaos off the bench but for, you know, stuff.  

In the dying seconds, the possibility of glorious daylight robbery.  We’d passed Danny Webber arriving as we traversed the car park before the game – he once executed a similar burglary at Leicester in the dying minutes.  Here it was Isma, cutting in from the left and finding United’s defence unusually inattentive, backing off.  He pinged a shot towards the top corner which for half a second from our angle looked like it was going in.  The celebration, had that happened, would still be rolling around the otherwise empty Old Trafford stands but it wasn’t to be, curling narrowly and cruelly over the bar.

5- There’s no knocking a draw at Old Trafford.  As at Villa – before one point became three – there’s the suspicion that it’s not quite enough but a third League point at this venue and the first since November 1985 is not to be taken lightly.

As for what comes next…  it should be stating the obvious that our home form is the biggest obstacle to our escape since there are still plenty of games to be played and plenty of bad teams within reach. 

The thing about probability is that there’s a huge grey area between a racing certainty and a dead horse and when you’re in that grey area all sorts of anxious tendencies come to the fore.  Many of them are essentially cowardly – or at the very least lacking in courage, which isn’t quite the same thing – easier to protect yourself from hurt and emotional vulnerability by writing off the shades of grey as black.  “We were down weeks ago, lads”. 

Being positive, refusing to accept that the game is lost, is in its own way no less cowardly.  A refusal to accept reality, perhaps.

But it is more fun.  With or without a pointed stick.


*Foster 4*, Ngakia 3, Kamara 3, Cathcart 3, Samir 4, Louza 4, Sissoko 4, Cleverley 4, Sarr 3, Dennis 2, King 2
Subs: Sema (for King, 63) 3, Kabasele (for Ngakia, 63) 3, Kucka (for Cleverley, 80) NA, Hernández, Kayembe, Troost-Ekong, Masina, João Pedro, Bachmann


1. sptemple - 27/02/2022

I stayed away from the game yesterday; scarred by the contrast of the excitement generated by the win at Villa versus the tragedy of the Palace game.

I have watched the highlights and am convinced that Man U will score if I watch them again, or that Juan Mata will appear and score a last minute free kick.

A draw at Old Trafford is an excellent point and it would be more amazing if we take confidence from it into the Arsenal game.

2. Graham French - 04/03/2022

Thanks for the report Matt. A point at Old Trafford is quite a thing, even these days. On to the Arsenal. Surely our home form must improve?

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