The Hornets will head into Christmas bottom of the Premier League, but crucially with the wind in their sails and what could potentially be a turning point in their survival campaign.
The home side had United to thank, though, and largely their out-of-sorts goalkeeper David De Gea. The Spaniard has suffered a noticeable slump in form this season and was criticised for his weakness in conceding against Everton last weekend.
Yet this was a calamity on another level. In the 50th minute, Watford striker Ismaila Sarr miss-hit a volley from Will Hughes’s flicked-on free-kick into the turf that bounced up kindly into the hands of the goalkeeper. United players immediately turned to prepare a counter attack, only to look back stunned as De Gea had allowed the ball to slip through his hands above his head and into the net.
He immediately slumped to the turf in embarrassment, and was joined there four minutes later when teammate Aaron Wan-Bissaka conceded a penalty – the normally inch-perfect defender miss-timing his rash tackle on Sarr to give Troy Deeney the chance to bury the ball home from the back of the net. The talismanic captain made no mistake.
The win gave Watford something to cheer in what has been a bleak season so far. But for United, it was a huge opportunity missed. This could have been a victory that thrust them into the top-four mix, but suddenly a six-match unbeaten streak now looks very different, having taken just three wins from their last eight matches.
Here are five things we learned.
De Gea’s confidence has deserted him at the worst time
The flap at the corner against Everton could easily have been an isolated incident even if it did have his critics immediately referring to the ‘vulnerable’ David De Gea who first graced the Premier League more than eight years ago. Even taking into account his below-par form, it was far from a concern for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
But now it is a problem. The signs were there early when De Gea flapped at a corner and Abdoulaye Doucoure smashed the ball home on the turn, only for the goal to be disallowed for Craig Cathcart’s relatively innocuous contact with the goalkeeper.
But when Sarr miss-hit his volley goalwards, it was struck so tamely into the turf that Watford fans had to double-take when the ball found the back of the net. De Gea took his eyes off the ball, failed to catch it and could only watch as it bounced over his head and in. With five games coming up in the next 16 days, United cannot afford to be carrying their goalkeeper.
United must discover the key to their fast starts
When United score inside the first 30 minutes, they win. That has been the trend this season, with fast starts rewarded by three points. But when the going gets tough, or the scoreline goes against them, they always come up short when facing a true test of character.
United have not won a Premier League match in which they’ve failed to score in the first half an hour all season, which calls into question not only the resilience within this squad but also the substitutions that Solskjaer is making. Perhaps the best way to rectify this is finding the key behind the fast starts, given how it can change the balance of the entire game in their favour rather than challenging themselves to dig deep every week.
Pearson hoping to add missing ingredient himself
The return of a fit-again Troy Deeney has helped, but it was by no means the answer at Vicarage Road this afternoon. Perhaps what was more telling is that the rest of the side reflected the one that both Javi Gracia and Quique Sanchez Flores attempted to get firing this season, albeit with no success at home whatsoever.
Watford look set to be active in the January transfer window but there is no one player who will keep them up this season. Instead, it has to come from the players already there. Given that Pearson named an unchanged squad from the loss at Liverpool and virtually the same as the draw with Crystal Palace, it is clear that he is backing his own talent to get the desired response.
United can’t seem to do what Liverpool and City can
United tried to play with a front three when Romelu Lukaku was still at the club, with Solskjaer spreading Rashford and Martial out wide and negating their impact as a result. This season, they’ve tried a more conventional 4-2-3-1, yet it is not yet clicking.
The problem is that United do not seem to have the players who hold the consistency to do what Liverpool can. Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino are so in form right now that even when one has an off-day, it’s barely recognisable as the others pick up the slack. By reverting to this season’s formation, United look vaguely similar to how City operate, yet Jesse Lingard is not Kevin De Bruyne and he is being exposed as a No 10 who isn’t quite up to scratch for what United are expecting. It’s a problem that has one solution: a world-class striker or world-class No 10 is needed.
Wan-Bissaka finally gets it wrong
The English right-back has barely put a foot wrong in defence this season even if United’s defence has been suspect all season, so much so that his teammates have been raving about how good he is in one-on-one situations.
That is not just true for his Untied career, but it’s also what stood out at Crystal Palace that saw him catch the eye enough to secure a potential £50m move to Old Trafford. Unfortunately, the defender got it horribly wrong today, doing so when his normally astute timing deserted him as he lunged into Sarr to concede a penalty. It was exactly what United didn’t need immediately after conceding, and should teach him a useful lesson that you can’t be right every time, no matter how smart you think you are.
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