Manchester United vs Watford: Individual brilliance of Bruno Fernandes covers collective cracks

For all the untidy, unpolished elements of United’s play, their attackers supplied a reminder of how poetic their offensive might can be

Melissa Reddy
Old Trafford
Sunday 23 February 2020 18:03 GMT
Bruno Fernandes guides in his first goal for Manchester United
Bruno Fernandes guides in his first goal for Manchester United

For the longest time, the highlight of Sunday afternoon was provided by Marcus Rashford – and he wasn’t even on the pitch for Manchester United.

The forward, sidelined through a double stress fracture, tweeted a cute photo of his nephew after he’d scored three goals in four games during a tournament at Carrington. The Sunday showpiece at the academy seemed like more of a spectacle than the main event at Old Trafford, where the hosts and Watford were sparring in a sleepy, sloppy display.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men were comedic at the back during the opening exchanges, snapshotted by an accidental collision between Harry Maguire and Nemanja Matic.

United were not uncomfortable opponents for Watford at the other end of the pitch either and were in danger of going three league games on their own turf without scoring for the first time since May 2002. But a team whose strength is being strong in transition switched from unwatchable to intoxicating courtesy of individual brilliance.

Bruno Fernandes, recruited to inject creativity and greater sting to their offensive play, sparked the metamorphosis and moulded it. The weight of expectation and the scale of task to be a reference point for United has marmalised several recruits in recent seasons, but the Portugal international has revelled in the responsibility.

Closing in on half-time, he won and converted a penalty – complete with a confident skip before striking it – to galvanise the team and energise the supporters in baltic conditions.

“This is what I want to do and what I need to do,” Fernandes said post-match. “Everyone knows we want to get into the Champions League places. I am here to help the team conquer this place and keep winning games. This is the day every player wants to have.”

For all the untidy, unpolished elements of United’s play, their attackers supplied a reminder of how poetic their offensive might can be.

Anthony Martial produced football art on 58 minutes, a superb mix of skill and surety. Watford goalkeeper Ben Foster, who had given away the spot-kick in the first-half, thwarted the striker’s initial attempt. The Frenchman kept his composure, manipulated the ball with expert trickery and scooped it over the stopper from a tight angle.

The goal meant Martial scored in three games on the spin for the first time since September 2017 and it couldn’t have been more timely for United given their issues in the final third and tussle to finish in the top four.

While his strike was the standout moment of the encounter, Mason Greenwood added another emphatic finish to his growing catalogue for the club. The 18-year-old, terrifyingly good for his age, won possession, carried the ball up and exchanged passes with Fernandes before thundering his effort in off the bar.

As United turned it up, Watford offered little tonic besides a Troy Deeney goal that was disallowed by VAR for a Craig Dawson handball in the build-up.

For a change, Solskjaer’s charges were able to follow up a huge result at Chelsea with another victory. It was only the third occasion United have won back-to-back league games this season – an anomaly that needs to become habit if they are to rejoin Europe’s elite.

“A very good win, two good wins and two clean sheets, some goals to celebrate, now we want to kick on,” Solskjaer said. “I thought first half we started by gifting them some good opportunities and gradually we created more and more chances.

“Bruno Fernandes is quicker than he looks. Very excited by having him in. He has come in, given everyone a boost and wants to conduct a game. There are big games coming up now.”

Fernandes will undoubtedly assume a starring role in them, but the real trick for United will be to complement the moments of individual mastery they are capable of with a more consistent and collective methodology.

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