Watford 4-1 Manchester Utd: Manchester United thrashed by Watford to leave Ole Gunnar Solskjær on brink

   This time there was to be no rescue act, no papering over of the cracks. Deploy any pejorative you wish and it would probably fit: Manchester United were dire, derelict, dreadful and, by the end, thoroughly demeaned.

That is hardly a novel outcome on recent evidence and it proved the final straw for the club’s board. A sizeable number of the away support made their own opinions clear at the end, booing Ole Gunnar Solskjær when he fronted up to applaud their backing; at the time it seemed an ominous shift in sentiment and, within hours, the manager’s fate would rest entirely on the say-so of co-chairman Joel Glazer.

In an increasingly crowded field, this was a brand new low for modern-day United. They were fortunate to only concede four: Watford, whose fine performance must not be airbrushed, met their endemic sloppiness head on and exposed them repeatedly, particularly in a first half in which the one-sidedness beggared belief. “Nightmare after nightmare after nightmare,” David de Gea called it: his meaning was clear but this was yet another vividly lived experience and no trick of the imagination.
It had been tempting to predict a different kind of repeat display when Donny van de Beek, for whom United’s fans had loudly called for during the opening period, scored his first club goal in 16 months within minutes of being introduced at half-time. That halved the deficit and, for a while, the occasion seemed primed for another of the stirring but unsustainable comebacks that allow another week’s callbacks to the spirit of 99. Van de Beek, with the bit between his teeth, then played Cristiano Ronaldo through only for Ben Foster to deflect over with his shoulder. The high watermark had been reached: Foster’s save was bookended by an embarrassment of the highest order.

Injury-time goals by João Pedro and Emmanuel Dennis ensured Watford had a margin of victory that was the least they deserved, but the seeds had been sown much earlier. Within six minutes of the start, Bruno Fernandes miscued an attempted crossfield volley so bizarrely that Josh King was sent through. King was brought down by Scott McTominay, who would be hauled off after an abysmal first half, and Jon Moss called play back for a penalty after Dennis failed to convert the loose ball.

Emmanuel Dennis scores Watford’s fourth goal
Emmanuel Dennis scores Watford’s fourth goal

Ismaïla Sarr’s low, weak shot was parried by De Gea but Kiko Femenía blasted in the rebound from an angle. Femenia had, however, been suspiciously quick to the punch: VAR showed he had encroached by a yard when Sarr took aim and, despite Harry Maguire’s lengthy protestations, Watford were invited to retake the spot kick. The same taker brought a similar outcome, De Gea saving again with no yellow shirt waiting to gobble up.

The entire chaotic sequence had seemed of a piece with United’s season. They could have wrested themselves off the hook from there but the rot had set in: Maguire bailed out teammates with two goal-saving challenges and, with Watford’s pace and energy several notches higher than United could tolerate, there was little surprise when King breached them before the half-hour.
Nor were any eyebrows raised at the fact a defensive mistake lay at the opener’s heart. Aaron Wan-Bissaka should have dealt with a routine Femenía delivery to the far post but looped an inadequate header towards Dennis. The forward, a menace all afternoon, fizzed across a low centre that King swept under De Gea.

In a rare moment of note at the other end Foster repelled a half-volley from Marcus Rashford, who joined McTominay in departing halfway through. But Watford, spurred by the surges of Moussa Sissoko and cleverly prompted by the young midfielder Imran Louza, could have scored at least once more before Sarr exploited acres of space on the right of the box to arrow a thrilling finish into the far corner.

United had been all over the place, the spine of their team wading through treacle. Van de Beek spurred them with his close-range header but the game was essentially up when, in the 69th minute, Maguire dwelt on the ball for too long and was robbed by Tom Cleverley. His flawed attempt at recovery brought a second yellow card in quick succession and an early shower; the torpor at United’s heart had reared up once again.

Fernandes, another huge disappointment, skied a half-chance to equalise but Watford reasserted control in the final stages. De Gea will be vexed that Pedro, a substitute, shot through him but was beaten more comprehensively from an angle by the superb Dennis. Watford departed to cheers and a sense that, having lifted them four points clear of the relegation zone, Claudio Ranieri is capable of keeping them up.

Any optimism that Solskjær could achieve his and United’s ends expired with this collapse. The discontent aimed towards one of their genuine heroes was unedifying but it seems likely he will be spared any more. Almost as troubling was the set-to between Fernandes and a section of the travelling contingent at full-time, his teammates ushering the playmaker away. Fernandes had been arguing that the players should take the rap; he may soon learn that, in practice, it rarely works out that way.



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