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A routine Saturday afternoon at Old Trafford saw Manchester United secure victory against Watford with relative ease.
An encouraging and fluent first half drew praise from the Reds’ manager at full time and in truth the game could, and probably should, have been won by a much greater margin.
As it was, it took until just after the half-hour mark for the ever-productive Juan Mata to make yet another crucial contribution. The ball was worked well to Anthony Martial on the left and the Frenchman produced an incisive cross which was swept home by the diminutive Spaniard.
A flurry of chances continued to materialise and comfort came midway through the second half as the impressive Martial slotted home a well deserved second for United.
It was a good performance and an important victory ahead of a crucial few weeks in all competitions; here are five things we learned from victory over Walter Mazzarri’s side.
1. Defensively Sound
With the impressive Eric Bailly returning from international duty, Chris Smalling rediscovering some form following injury and Antonio Valencia consistently continuing to impress, the Reds look a solid unit very much in the Mourinho mould.
Another clean sheet duly followed on Saturday against the Hornets and an area which was widely regarded as weak over the past few seasons is starting to look very strong.
The revival of Phil Jones before an untimely injury and the impressive recent performances of Marcos Rojo provides real competition for places and United now appear to have a very strong platform to build upon.
Left-back and, in particular, the status of Luke Shaw remains a concern but if the youngster can find some fitness and some form the Reds may well have a formidable back line.
2. Missed Chances
It’s been a prevalent theme this season and Saturday against Watford was no different. The Reds are creating plenty of chances in games but are proving to be far from clinical in front of goal.
Despite the promising performance the concern remains that far too many chances have been squandered this campaign and whilst it wasn’t costly against a largely toothless Watford finishing will need to improve as we enter the business end of the season.
For all his goals so far it’s hard to escape the fact that Zlatan Ibrahimovic could perhaps have 5-10 more to his name had he been more composed at times. Bigger tests will come than Watford presented at Old Trafford and United will need to be more clinical.
3. Martial, Mkhitaryan & Mata
Manchester United haven’t always been fluid and creative in attack this season but the blend of pace, skill and creativity provided by the combination of Martial, Mkhitaryan and Mata gives cause for optimism.
Yes, a number of chances were wasted but time and again United’s three ‘M’s were able to penetrate Watford’s rear guard.
Anthony Martial performed well having worked hard to force his way back into the side and was heavily involved in both goals. Mkhitaryan built on his performance against Leicester playing more centrally and Mata continues to provide telling contributions.
There has been a lot of rotation of the supporting acts around Zlatan Ibrahimovic but Saturday may well have put down a marker for the rest of the season moving forwards.
4. System Shift?
The club’s strong run coincided with Jose Mourinho settling on a solid system of 4-3-3 anchored by Michael Carrick in midfield.
A few months on and recent games have suggested that a shift to a 4-2-3-1, a system typically preferred by United’s manager, may well be materialising. The system suits the likes of Mata and Mkhitaryan, with licence to play more centrally. Conversely, however, the system arguably restricts the exploits of Paul Pogba.
Being flexible and able to adapt to different systems is certainly a positive and home games against the likes of Watford certainly don’t warrant the need for the protection offered by Michael Carrick. The performance on Saturday was refreshingly fluent at times and the team’s ability to adapt is encouraging.
5. Business End
Saturday’s win against the Hornets was an important one, not least because the Reds do not have another Premier League fixture until March.
Jose Mourinho’s men remain in all 4 competitions and the next few weeks could prove to be a defining period. With the EFL Cup final, the FA Cup and the Europa League all on the near horizon the Old Trafford outfit are fast approaching the business end of the season.
The victory against Watford showed at times that the Reds might just be hitting their stride at the right time. The football was fluent and incisive for good periods of the game and that will encourage all associated with the club.
Further encouraging performances over the next few weeks may well see United well placed to pick up silverware and rejoin Europe’s elite next season.