Reaction as United capitulate, again.
So, did Ole Gunnar Solskjaer take any gambles with his starting team? Axel Tuanzebe and Brandon Williams might have had minor causes for grumbling on the sidelines. Further forward, Dan James and Jesse Lingard might have breathed in relief when they were named in the eleven, with Mason Greenwood playing so well of late and Paul Pogba back and available.
Much has been made of a more positive mood in the Watford camp under new manager Nigel Pearson but this was still a team who haven’t led at all in any home game prior to today, a team with just four home goals in the first eight games at Vicarage Road.
There is an impetus on them to come out and try and win, and to be fair, they did that; they hardly remained camped in their own half, indeed, the hosts had much of the territorial advantage for patches of the first half.
Theoretically, then, that should have played into United’s hands, but they were predictable, sloppy, and predictably sloppy; in defence there was the sort of casual approach from Shaw and Lindelof that was too often shown against Everton. Up front, the visitors were wasteful with the space they got; the polar opposite of their showing at Manchester City.
Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial both had first half opportunities but failed to trouble the goalkeeper; the best way of describing their approach was that these chances were taken with the sort of relaxed conviction you see of a team who are two or three goals up. Lingard’s in particular was the sort of chance taken with unwarranted over-confidence.
Scott McTominay and Fred have often made the difference by at least breaking up the play to create more space for the forward players to afford to be let off with missing a few chances. Here, Pearson showed nous to flood the central area; whilst Fred was combative, McTominay was often crowded out of being able to play his usual tidy game.
When United were able to counter, Watford got bodies back before the visitors were able to flood forward, and this meant attacks were almost always comfortably stopped around thirty yards of goal. The visitors, from that point, were out of ideas, and usually went all the way back to the goalkeeper, where the hosts were able to try and take advantage of poor passing from the United defenders.
A goalless first half summed up the quality of the game; it seemed to feel as if the result and pattern of the game would be dictated by the timing of the introduction of United substitutes. The idea of Paul Pogba providing a creative influence overshadowed the realistic history of he too being a passenger in this sort of game.
But the idea of that influence changed from match-winner to rescue act as Solskjaer’s team contrived to capitulate, surrendering two goals in the first ten minutes of the second period.
After another lazy attack which featured Luke Shaw deciding it would be better to waste an aimless clipped pass than it would be to hold on to the ball and be patient, Watford broke and won a free-kick. From there on, David De Gea was to blame with a horrendous rick which broke the deadlock. Before there had even been an opportunity to regroup, it was 2-0 when Wan-Bissaka’s rash challenge conceded a penalty.
A prominent cocktail on the Manchester United menu in the post-Ferguson years has included the following ingredients : take one part a team with an unfancied record (see West Brom, Newcastle, Everton and Southampton among the many teams who had gone generations without wins at Old Trafford until enjoying recent joy) and take one part a United team who offered little in terms of inspiration for a comeback in any of those games. That was the one served up for visiting fans today, medicine they’ve been forced to swallow too many times in the last six years.
Greenwood was introduced for the ineffectual James and Pogba came into the action in the 64th minute for Lingard. United’s late flurry was in vain, and in truth, only really created a few half chances, with Rashford testing Foster once and Martial going on a couple of runs. It wasn’t enough.
And so United’s bi-polar days continue, with Solskjaer’s reign providing some of the best and worst performances in the last six years. Today was comfortably in the latter category; a dreadful performance, made all the worse due to the standard of the opposition. It was embarrassing, humiliating; a low point.
Man with a plan
A criticism of Solskjaer has been his apparent tactical ineptitude when it comes to breaking down these poor sides of the division. That’s West Ham, Bournemouth, Newcastle and now Watford, all games which followed familiar patterns.
It’s a confusing one, because he has clearly demonstrated tactical nous, with plenty of occasions in the last year which serve as evidence. Almost all of these have been in big games, many of them away from home, some with a very depleted squad.
Somewhere in the mixup there has to be some acknowledgement of the players’ role in all of this. Reportedly, at half time in the last Europa League game, Solskjaer told them to ‘play more like Man Utd’, a message which they responded to.
If they had played with the same level of intensity and concentration today as they did at the Etihad then they should have won comfortably. They would certainly have been better than today. Do the players need to be reminded of the standards on a weekly basis?
There is a natural riposte to this; that Solskjaer simply cannot inspire the players to raise those standards, that he’s not the manager capable of doing so. But neither was Jose Mourinho, a man with a CV that commands respect.
It’s indicative of a squad who, given an excuse for underperformance, will often take it, and even more often will be given an excuse by supporters who already have their own preferences about who the manager should be. Whatever your opinion about that opinion, there is one inescapable conclusion, which is that the players are clearly incapable of the sort of self-discipline that commands that higher level of concentration and better application.
So if one of the most successful managers of all time can’t command a level of consistency which should be the least expected from a Manchester United side, and if the players aren’t capable of taking that responsibility on themselves, how do you instil it?
In this writer’s opinion — and it will certainly not be a popular one — the best way would be keep faith in the manager, and allow him to outlast the players who have all the talent but apparently little of the application. Allow him to oversee that transition safe the knowledge that he can make or break careers instead of allowing a dressing room the control of making or breaking their managers.
It is the last untried option at United, and if things have to get worse before they get better — yes, even worse — then the long-term benefit of removing this sort of attitude, even if the manager is still ultimately toast, has to appeal.
Nobody is advocating flogging a dead horse or avoiding change for the sake of being a top red; if the manager is not good enough then he should go. But if there is evidence of the manager’s process working then you have to consider the circumstances when it doesn’t. The players, at some point, are going to have to be the ones who shoulder the blame.
On a day of difficult truths, another matter which is becoming more realistic than just a matter of form is the lack of authority in defence. It was hoped that Harry Maguire, certainly at £80m, would provide that. He has not.
Nobody is going to play brilliantly every week. Victor Lindelof and Luke Shaw have been shaky in recent times. So when De Gea makes an error and Wan-Bissaka has the misfortune of his worst game coming alongside it, United were destined to be punished in a way that others would not be able to retrieve or compensate. A hard lesson for Wan-Bissaka, and De Gea, who have often been the ones to get their colleagues out of the back out of jail. (Though in De Gea’s case, there is of course more evidence these days that he is increasingly culpable for the anxiety at the back.)
It all leads to a mixed message for Maguire who, at 0-2, started bringing the ball out and not really knowing what to do with it, when more economic and practical use of the ball was probably wise. The former Leicester man will have more of a stay of execution and nobody is suggesting that relatively sub-par performances are a case for dropping him. But he has to be better than this.
That process is going to start with the compensation in other areas. Today feels like a defining moment in the case of Lindelof and Shaw. It is difficult to see either of them starting against Newcastle on Boxing Day.