United show a glimpse of what they can do against Watford
Pieces might be falling into place for Mourinho’s team as Champions League campaign begins
Manchester United celebrate after Chris Smalling scores against Watford at Vicarage Road, London. Photograph: EPA
For 15 minutes on Saturday, Manchester United supporters were given a glimpse of what might just be possible. The scintillating spell before half-time that saw Watford’s defence torn to shreds by the pace and power of José Mourinho’s frontline was a timely reminder that, despite the much-criticised start to the season, he has an attack with frightening potential.
Yet United eventually left Vicarage Road indebted to David de Gea for ending their opponents’ 100 per cent record following a shaky second-half display that must have tested even Mourinho’s nerves, and it was the failure to kill off the game that would have concerned their manager most.
Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sánchez and Paul Pogba spurned chances to score a decisive third goal on the break, leading to a frantic final period that led to Nemanja Matic being dismissed for a second booking just before their goalkeeper’s late heroics.
Sánchez, who was withdrawn six minutes from time to be replaced by Scott McTominay, has had an intriguing start to his United career after his late decision to spurn Manchester City.
The league’s best-paid player at a whopping £391,000 a week, with an extra £75,000 for every game he plays and an annual £1.1 million signing on fee, scored only twice for United in the Premier League last season in 12 appearances, and has yet to find the net in four matches in this campaign. He was deployed on the left of the front three against Watford, and showed signs of a growing understanding with Lukaku in the first half, with the Belgium striker often moving wide to create space for Sánchez to burst through the middle.
It was one such collaboration that provided the spark just after the half-hour mark, with Ben Foster producing a wonderful save to deny Sánchez from a tight angle. The Chile forward, who turns 30 in December, scored 24 Premier League goals in his last full season at Arsenal from a similar starting position, although his relationship with Pogba could be the key to unlocking United’s true attacking ability.
The France midfielder enjoyed the advantage of United having an extra man in midfield against Watford, and became increasingly influential during the purple patch before half-time. But on several occasions after the interval he and Sánchez failed to make the most of opportunities that a more ruthless side would have relished. Nonetheless, there was genuine positivity in the two-minute rendition of Herman’s Hermits’ “something tells me I’m into something good” from the away end.
The song features the line “José’s got us playing the way we should,” – a sentiment that many fans would perhaps struggle to agree with even after this morale-boosting victory. But Mourinho’s decision to pick Marouane Fellaini alongside Matic and Pogba in what must be one of the tallest midfield trios selected in the Premier League – Chelsea’s three against Cardiff on Saturday were a combined 53cm shorter – paid off as the Belgian created Chris Smalling’s second goal and helped neutralise the threat of the workaholic Troy Deeney.
Starting with the trip to Switzerland to face Young Boys on Wednesday, United now embark on a series of winnable fixtures that will provide Mourinho an opportunity to fine-tune his side before his return to Stamford Bridge on October 20th.
The manager appeared to have a new spring in his step after the full-time whistle, even teasing Smalling over his new haircut as he praised the England defender’s performance alongside Victor Lindelöf.
Finding the right defensive combination has proved a challenge for a manager who has built his reputation on solid foundations at the back, but amid all the disquiet over the failure to secure a central defender in the summer, Mourinho will hope the pieces are finally falling into place at the right time.