Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United find a way to win – but long-term challenges remain
Manager needs to find Roy Keane-type and Paul Scholes-type players in central midfield
It was an odd afternoon at a sun-kissed Old Trafford where Manchester United beat Watford 2-1 to return to a crucial top-four position in the Premier League, though Arsenal in fifth do not play until Monday.
It was another win – Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s 15th in 20 games in charge – yet an impressive Watford had 20 shots to United’s eight, and the home team were often on the back foot. United have been better away from home under the Norwegian.
Former manager Louis van Gaal this week surprised some when he said that United played a defensive counter-attacking system. They did that in Paris Saint-Germain against superior players – but they did it against Watford, too, United’s much improved defence soaking up early pressure.
United had the 16th-best defence pre-Solskjaer. It is the second-best since.
A well-organised, well-built Watford side created chances and caused problems, but they did not have United’s deadly counter-attack, led by the speed of Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial. They have futures at Old Trafford, but it is implausible that all those who played behind them will stay.
Of the many questions United’s manager must ask ahead of next season, there is one about who he wants in his midfield. Solskjaer has been clear that his preferred three are Paul Pogba, Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matic, even if that is in a 4-4-2 with a diamond formation.
All three have improved under Solskjaer, but injury to Herrera meant Saturday was the first time the triumvirate started in a league game since February 9. They did start against Wolves in United’s last game in the FA Cup – and they were outclassed for the second time this season by Wolves.
United were also second-best for much of the first half against Javi Gracia’s Watford – who had five shots to United’s one with a quarter of the game gone. Central midfielders Abdoulaye Doucoure and Etienne Capoue were superior to their opposites.
The shot that mattered most, however, after 27 minutes was from Rashford who ran onto a long pass from Luke Shaw, the defender having already broken up a Watford attack. It should have been 2-0 two minutes later after a well-worked corner allowed Martial to shoot straight at goalkeeper Ben Foster.
There are more pressing issues than United’s central midfield, yet the team miss a Roy Keane-type player who can, in northern-English parlance, take a game by the scruff of the neck. They miss a Paul Scholes-type who can dictate the pace of a game.
Pogba is sublimely talented, just as Herrera is tenacious and popular, driven and skillful. Matic is dependable, blocks, brings balance and closes down space, but what is the future?
Herrera is 30 in August, Matic, who wears 31, will be 31 in the same month. Herrera wants a new contract and a pay rise to stay beyond this season. Club and player have been unable to find agreement in part because the club have not made the decision themselves over how the central midfield will look.
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Juan Mata, who played ahead of the three in a central role, is 31 in April. He, too, is out of contract at the end of this season. Pogba could easily move forward and play the head of diamond where Mata plays. Mata and Herrera combined have started the same number of games as Pogba this season.
Perhaps it was an off day against Watford, but little changed in the second half when United needed rousing on and off the pitch. Mata tried to get the crowd to liven up before he was taken off after 62 minutes for Andreas Pereira, a player who needs to step up if he, too, is to be at United long term. Mata – not him – departed in the same minute for Jesse Lingard.
Martial bundled in United’s second after 72 minutes, a cushion they scarcely deserved. It meant that for the first time since 1995/96, United have four players who have scored 10 or more league goals in a season.
Watford got the goal they did deserve through Doucoure after 90 minutes, with Solskjaer looking as nervy as an emptying Old Trafford felt. Solskjaer’s excellent run overrides everything else for now and United’s priority is to finish in the top four.
But concern will mount if the team are on the back foot at home, especially against teams lower in the table. “It’s difficult to explain [how we lost the game],” Gracia said.
“We started so slow and were so sloppy in the first 20 minutes,” Solskjaer said. "But after we scored, we played some great counter-attacking stuff. [Defenders] Chris [Smalling] and Jonah [Phil Jones] kept us in it.
"We would like to dominate but we were unable to. But we got three points."
Updated: March 30, 2019 10:27 PM