Own goal gives depleted United last-gasp victory
Watford 1-2 Manchester United
Published 22/11/2015 | 02:30
No Wayne Rooney, no Anthony Martial, no problem. Manchester United willed themselves to a precious victory thanks to a dramatic late intervention from a striker, although it was a player in a yellow shirt rather than a red one who got the telling touch during a breathless assault on the Watford goal in stoppage time.
Those final few minutes will be hard for Troy Deeney to absorb. Watford's captain appeared to have rescued a point for the hosts when he shattered David de Gea's magnificent resistance with a penalty in the 87th minute, and it seemed that the day would end in frustration for United, who had spurned so many chances after Memphis Depay's early goal. Yet the sucker punch came when Deeney's attempt to clear Bastian Schweinsteiger's shot ended with the ball trickling over the line. "It was painful," Quique Sanchez Flores said.
Schweinsteiger admitted that it was an own-goal, and the German will have to wait a little longer for his first goal in English football, but it was an afternoon when United concentrated on collective rather than personal glory. The only frustration was that Ander Herrera and Phil Jones are highly doubtful for the visit of PSV Eindhoven in the Champions League on Wednesday, although Van Gaal expects Rooney to return. "We are in a lousy period because there are a lot of injuries," Van Gaal said. "Jones has a twisted ankle and Herrera maybe a hamstring injury."
With his attack depleted by Rooney's illness and Martial's ankle injury, Van Gaal improvised. Marouane Fellaini and James Wilson were also missing, and the fear for United was that Van Gaal's thinking outside the box would reduce their threat inside Watford's. At first glance, Van Gaal resembled a chef who had been asked to provide a roast dinner, only to find that there was no meat in the fridge, yet United's manager was invigorated by the challenge of solving the tactical puzzle, and Watford struggled to come to terms with the visitors' fluid formation at first.
United's front three alternated positions cleverly. Sometimes Depay was on the left, sometimes he was through the middle. Sometimes Juan Mata took up a central role, sometimes it was Jesse Lingard. And if it was difficult to keep track of United's movement from the stands, imagine how tough it was for Watford's defenders.
The early signs had been less than promising when Ashley Young charged down the right and sent a cross into the Watford area. The ball sailed behind for a goal-kick. Yet United continued to probe down that flank, and their counter-intuitive approach brought them the opening goal in the 11th minute. Herrera's bending cross reached Depay, and he punished Watford's woeful marking by cushioning a firm volley past Heurelho Gomes. Van Gaal got the response he wanted from Depay on the forward's first league start since he was hauled off at half-time against Arsenal on October 4.
"A superb goal," Van Gaal said. "The way we played, it suits them. That was good. Now we know we can play in another system. But we have to improve our positional game today. We were very good in other games - so good that it was boring."
Van Gaal smiled after that reference to United's critics. He feels that their structure disturbs opponents, but there was more zip to United's play against Watford, and it was only their lack of ruthlessness that made them vulnerable. Morgan Schneiderlin whistled a volley over and Lingard was twice denied by Gomes when he was through on goal.
Watford began nervously, Odion Ighalo missing their only chance of the first half, but they improved after the break, and De Gea made two outstanding saves, the first from Deeney's thunderous drive, the second from Almen Abdi's prod.
The final 20 minutes became a physical battle for a tiring United, and a jetlagged Marcos Rojo fouled Ighalo in the area. Yet Deeney's equaliser merely jolted United into life, and when Gomes saved Lingard's low shot, Schweinsteiger squeezed the ball back into the middle and it went in off Deeney.
"I am very proud I am the manager of that team," Van Gaal said. United have proved something important to themselves: that they can win by throwing caution to the wind.
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