Manchester United’s soul resurfaces in late victory at Vicarage Road

Frenetic reaction to Watford’s equaliser triggers reminder of Alex Ferguson era

Alex Ferguson often said Manchester United liked to make life hard for themselves. They have mostly just been hard to watch during Louis van Gaal's short time at the club.

Van Gaal smiled after the dramatic victory over Watford that lifted United into second place, a point below Leicester City, and as he explained why he was unhappy with his side’s positional play, he poked fun at the critics who have called his football boring.

United’s manager likes his team to play with a solid structure on and off the ball, arguing that what some people see as sterile domination is actually designed to wear opponents down. Their movement was more unpredictable at Vicarage Road and Watford found space in the final 30 minutes.

Stunning saves

Quique Sánchez Flores's side were denied an equaliser by two stunning saves from David de Gea and they finally hauled themselves level thanks to a Troy Deeney penalty in the 87th minute. It was the first goal the team with the best defensive record in the Premier League had conceded since CSKA Moscow's Seydou Doumbia beat De Gea on October 21st and the slip seemed to enhance Van Gaal's preference for a technically perfect but slightly cold harmony over the free jazz approach that had confused Watford for an hour.


Yet Deeney's equaliser acted as a spur for United. It liberated them, brought their soul to the surface, and it seemed like they were a Ferguson team during the final few minutes. They laid furious siege to the Watford goal and the winner arrived when the unfortunate Deeney turned in Bastian Schweinsteiger's shot after Heurelho Gomes saved Jesse Lingard's effort. Fergie Time became Louis Time.

Van Gaal praised his team's spirit and he also acknowledged that the system suited his speedier attacking players. With Wayne Rooney and Anthony Martial missing, Memphis Depay, Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard formed an unorthodox front three. Ander Herrera schemed intelligently behind them and he made Depay's goal after 11 minutes with a cross from the right. Depay, Lingard and Mata interchanged positions beautifully in the first half and at times Watford's defenders were uncertain about who they were supposed to be marking.

It was an important performance for Depay, who was back in the starting XI after a spell on the bench, and he combined well with Lingard. Their pace on the break troubled Watford, although some wasteful finishing almost let the hosts off the hook.

The bigger frustration for United was losing Herrera to a hamstring injury and Phil Jones to a twisted ankle. They were already missing Michael Carrick, Marouane Fellaini, Martial, Luke Shaw, Antonio Valencia and James Wilson, although Van Gaal expects Rooney to recover from his illness in time for the visit of PSV Eindhoven on Wednesday.

Their squad is stretched and Van Gaal is still searching for the right balance, but Chelsea’s struggles and the inconsistencies of Arsenal and Manchester City have made this an open title race.

They visit Leicester on Saturday and if they need any inspiration, they should look back to 14 October 14th 2000. Leicester began the day in first place and United finished it there after goals from Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer secured a thumping 3-0 win at Filbert Street.


Meanwhile, Van Gaal has confirmed he would be keen to bring Cristiano Ronaldo back to Manchester United – but admits that such players are "mostly ungettable".

The former United favourite left the club for Real Madrid in 2009, for a then-record fee of £80 million but suggestions have persisted that he would be open to returning to Old Trafford.

“We are looking at all players, not just Ronaldo,” said Van Gaal. “But these players are mostly ungettable. With Ronaldo, let’s wait and hope.” Guardian Service