Man United do just enough to escape from Watford with a victory
WATFORD, England -- Three points from Vicarage Road as Manchester United hung on to complete a 2-1 win over Watford.
1. Man United do enough to beat the Hornets
Watching Manchester United at the moment is slightly odd business. They ended Watford's 100 percent record at Vicarage Road on Saturday evening, earning a 2-1 victory thanks to a pair of goals in five first-half minutes from Romelu Lukaku and Chris Smalling. But for much of the game the hosts were on top and might even be more satisfied with their performance than United, if not the result.
That said, it's a measure of Watford's start to the season that they will be disappointed not to have beaten United, a side whose expectations are obviously far north of theirs. They looked the more threatening side in the second half and Andre Gray's goal did serve to make things interesting in the latter stages.
The first half-hour was fairly insipid, with Watford marginally on top and David de Gea forced to make a couple of smart saves, one in particular from Troy Deeney that required all of his skill and agility. However, it was United that took the lead in the 35th minute and in slightly curious circumstances. A free-kick was half-cleared, Ashley Young's cross back into the box was deflected, Ben Foster dithered and Lukaku guided the ball into the corner with his hip.
The way United were playing, they needed something unusual to get them going and it worked. The goal seemed to be a cold bucket of water in United's face: immediately after taking the lead they were fully rampant and could genuinely have scored two further goals in the three minutes between their first and second. That second came from another corner, which was knocked down and Smalling had time to control and then spin, 5 yards from goal, before hooking the ball past Foster.
After the break, Watford were again the better team, and were rewarded 20 minutes into the half. Abdoulaye Doucoure strode to the byline on the left, his cut-back eluded everyone before it reached Gray, in plenty of space on the edge of the box, who lashed into the roof of the net. Game on. However, despite Watford hammering away, United defended pretty well: Smalling and Victor Lindelof dealt with Gray and Deeney and at one point in the closing stages, Lukaku sprinted back from his position up front to put in a brilliant tackle from United's right-back position.
Nemanja Matic was sent off for a second booking in the final minutes and De Gea produced a near-miraculous save with seconds remaining. United clung on... but only just.
2. Man United offer a glimpse of what they could be
For five minutes in the second half, a team in a subtle pink kit were thrilling. They played with purpose, controlled aggression, invention and pace. They could have scored four goals in that time. They looked threatening and most of all, they were genuinely exciting to watch.
Excitement isn't something especially near the top of Jose Mourinho's list of priorities, it must be said. It rarely has been either, and on the occasions when his team have entertained, you're always half-convinced it was by accident.
For most of his tenure so far United have been a functional team to watch: not particularly bad and not particularly good. Just good enough. Whether he could have done more, results-wise, with the resources at his disposal is a debate that runs and runs in pubs and on Twitter, with no end in sight. But as a spectacle, Mourinho's United have not been a team that you would quickly cancel plans to watch. That pale kit, which looks like someone left a red sock in with a load of white washing, was rather appropriate.
It shouldn't be like this, though. The starting XI against Watford contained at least four attacking players capable of making you rise from your seat in appreciation. They can be more than just functional.
Which brings us back to that five-minute spell. Was that the real United? Was it a fluke? Was it five minutes where the players went rogue? At the very least it showed that they are capable of something more thrilling, more aesthetically pleasing. Something that might make you cancel plans to watch.
Mourinho won't especially care about whether they were entertaining or not because United won. But for the rest of us, there was a tantalising and all-too-short period of time when we saw what they could be.
3. Watford have plenty to be positive about
Watford's start to the season was undeniably diverting. In some ways, Leicester in 2015-16 was the worst thing that could happen to neutral fans because it showed us that the utterly implausible was possible. But the cruel bit is it made us think it could happen again. So when an entirely un-fancied team wins their first four games (including a dismissal of a theoretical title-challenger in Tottenham) and they sit above Manchester City at the top of the table, it's inevitable that people were going to get excited.
Of course Watford aren't going to win the league. They won't come close. But they're playing with a sense of purpose and identity that you wouldn't naturally associate with a team that changes managers as often as they do.
Javi Gracia has them playing fairly straightforward football, which isn't meant to sound like a backhanded compliment or a cypher for a boring, long-ball style. It's also a mystery why bigger teams haven't made a strong play for Abdoulaye Doucoure, Troy Deeney has his enthusiasm back and looks leaner, while Will Hughes is already becoming one of the better ball-players in the Premier League. They didn't play as well here as they have in their first four games: the final ball was too often askew, Deeney and Gray didn't link up quite as well and they were caught out in defence a few times.
But while they lost this game, they have plenty to be optimistic about. These are heartening times for Watford.