Manchester United were their own worst enemies at Vicarage Road, giving their opponents a two-goal headstart
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s side could have found themselves behind inside the first 10 minutes, were it not for David De Gea saving Ismaila Sarr’s twice-taken penalty, but goals from Joshua King and Sarr ensured a dominant Watford went in 2-0 up at the break.
Substitute Donny van de Beek got United back into the game early in the second half, heading home from close range, and both teams had chances to net again in an open game at both ends.
United’s problems continued midway through the second period, though, with Harry Maguire sent off for a second booking, and Joao Pedro’s stoppage-time goal clinched victory for the hosts and Emmanuel Dennis rubbed salt into the wound.
It’s yet another blow for United’s season, and will surely result in more questions being asked about the future of manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
1. Maguire brought down to earth after England high
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Harry Maguire’s celebration on England duty pointed to a man ready to prove people wrong, but he was always setting himself up for a fall.
Sure enough, the United captain was brought crashing down to earth at Vicarage Road, struggling to deal with the Watford forward line even before picking up a second yellow card for a baffling foul on Tom Cleverley.
Maguire’s decision to cup his ears after scoring against Albania attracted confusion and criticism, not least from former United skipper Roy Keane.
It might be time for the centre-back to show a willingness to listen more carefully to his critics.
2. Former United man King causing problems
While one Norwegian former Man Utd striker sat in the dugout, the other was at the centre of things before the break.
Joshua King never made a Premier League appearance for United after coming through their academy, but has carved out a Premier League career for himself and was too hot to handle at times.
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It was the 29-year-old who won Watford’s early penalty, while only an important block prevented him from testing De Gea midway through the opening period.
When his goal arrived, the visitors only had themselves to blame after bafflingly leaving him unmarked to pass the ball into the net, and he will feel he should have had a second after a number of chances.
It is the second time he has thrived against a former club this season, following his hat-trick in Watford’s win at Everton.
3. The return to a back four goes wrong
After Solskjaer’s use of the back three in recent weeks, Eric Bailly dropped out of the line-up and United opted for just the two central defenders.
The set-up only served to explain the manager’s preference for an extra defender, with Emmanuel Dennis and Ismaila Sarr exploiting gaps between full-backs and centre-backs at will.
One gets the sense that a similar defensive display against Villarreal during the week would only result in one thing, while the prospect of giving a team like Chelsea this many opportunities doesn’t bear thinking about.
4. Sancho’s audition takes a while to get going
With Mason Greenwood ruled out after a positive Covid test and Edinson Cavani sidelined through injury, Jadon Sancho was handed a rare opportunity to start a game in United colours.
It was the first time the former Borussia Dortmund man had been used from the start in more than a month, with the last such occasion coming in the defeat at Leicester City in October.
After a quiet first half, it was Sancho’s pinpoint cross which helped United get back into the game early in the second period, and he could easily have laid on a second with better finishing from Bruno Fernandes.
However, whether he did enough to earn an extended run in the side remains to be seen.
5. More heroics from De Gea count for nothing
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David De Gea hasn’t always been at his best of late, and will have likely blamed himself for failing to keep out Bernardo Silva’s goal in the game against Manchester City, but his penalty-saving efforts haven’t been in doubt this season.
After denying West Ham United’s Mark Noble earlier in the campaign, the Spaniard showed good reactions to deny Ismaila Sarr from the spot – not once, but twice, after a retake was ordered.
De Gea’s struggles to keep out penalties have been a feature of United games in the past, but he has looked like a different man this season. This time, though, it all counted for nothing.
6. Time surely up for Solskjaer
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There have been plenty of occasions this season where time looked to be running out for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, only for his team to produce some dramatic late magic.
Substitutes have often played a part, and the manager deserves some credit for the introduction of Van de Beek at half-time, with the Dutchman bringing his team back into the game.
Sarr’s injury was also a boost for the visitors, taking one of the home side’s biggest counter-attacking threats out of the game, but Maguire’s red made the comeback tougher before Joao Pedro and Emmanuel Dennis made things even worse.
This could well end up being one defeat too many for the manager.