Matchday 27 of the Premier League brought an interesting fixture at both ends of the table when Manchester United came up against Watford at Old Trafford. Manchester United were looking to build on a good week after they won 0-2 against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge where they usually struggle, and a decent 1-1 away draw against Club Brugge in the Europa League. A victory against Watford would be important to maintain a hopeful top-four finish considering Chelsea had won over the weekend.
Injuries have not been kind to United this season, with Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogbab both being long-term absentees. The return of Scott McTominay will surely give more balance in midfield. Watford find themselves in bad form, after not winning in four Premier League games. They had also never won a game at Old Trafford, so it was not looking good for the Hornets considering they sit 19th in the table. With the squad Watford have, it is a surprise that they find themselves in this position and survival is an absolute must for the Hornets. Both teams needed a win and an interesting clash was on the cards for this game.
Manchester United eventually ran out comfortable 3-0 winners in a game which was dominated by a massive call from VAR. Bruno Fernandes scored his first goal and got an assist in a really good individual performance. He certainly has raised the moods at Old Trafford since his arrival. A piece of individual brilliance from Anthony Martial and an absolute rocket from the exciting teenager Mason Greenwood helped United move up to fifth and within three points off fourth-placed Chelsea. Watford, on the other hand, remain in 19th and are struggling to find wins. With games against Burnley and Crystal Palace coming up, they must find some form.
This tactical analysis will attempt to look at how both managers attempted to win the game and the tactics used to do so. This analysis will also highlight how Manchester United were able to break down the Watford defence and how individual players have made a huge difference in United’s attacking performances.
Manchester United lined up in a traditional 4-2-3-1 formation. David De Gea started between the sticks. The Spanish International had kept three clean sheets in his past three games and was looking to continue this good form. Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelöf were the two centre-backs. Watford posed a physical threat and they would have to be on job defensively to deal with this threat. Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka were the two full-backs and getting forward to provide attacking support would be vital. Nemanja Matić and Fred were deployed as the two defensive midfielders. They had the responsibility of controlling the game and trying to find the attacking players when possible. Daniel James and Mason Greenwood were the two wingers for United. Both are exceptionally gifted young players with big futures ahead of them. Their pace and skill would prove to be a big problem for Watford’s defensive line. Bruno Fernandes was the central attacking midfielder. The Portuguese international has been impressive since joining from Sporting Lisbon, he would have a big role in trying to break down Watford’s defence. Anthony Martial was the lone striker, and while the Frenchman has been inconsistent as of late, two good goals against Chelsea and Club Brugge during the week meant he was currently in good form.
Watford also on paper lined up in a 4-2-3-1, however, this often shifted to a 5-3-2 formation at many points of the game. Ben Foster started in goal. The back four was made up of Craig Dawson, Christian Kabasele, Craig Cathcart, and Adam Masina. Their role would be primarily to stop United finding space in behind and they would often shift to a back three with one of the central midfielders dropping in. Étienne Capoue and Will Hughes were the two central defensive midfielders. Protecting the defenders behind them and getting the ball into dangerous areas would be very important for Watford. Gerard Deulofeu and Roberto Pereyra were the two wingers. Both possess great skill and flair and could easily prove a problem for the United full-backs. Abdoulaye Doucouré was based in the attacking midfield position. He has played this position a lot this season and seems to have taken to it. Clubs like Manchester United and Arsenal would be foolish not to consider picking the box to box midfielder up in the summer. Troy Deeney led the line for Watford. He can always cause problems for the opposition because of his aerial strengths and his ability to press the ball.
Manchester United brought Bruno Fernandes in the January transfer window, and since then he’s played three games scoring one goal and gotten two assists. He has really impressed thus far and has proved why United were willing to splash the cash for his services. In this game against Watford, he was excellent once again, with two central aspects of his game coming to the front. The first was the spaces he was finding himself in. Manchester United have lacked a good attacking midfielder for some time and Fernandes is making this position his own. He would often find himself in lots of space, and while this was partially due to Watford’s poor defending, a large part of this, however, must be attributed to his intelligence to find the spaces in key areas. He was always asking for the ball in these areas which allowed the team to get up the pitch. These spaces then allowed him to find the right pass to the likes of Greenwood and James down the flanks. This is an excellent attribute he possesses, and it will definitely improve United going forward.
Below is an example of the spaces that Fernandes was finding himself in. It was in behind the midfield line of Watford and in a position whereby he could find the correct pass into an attacking player. This is what Manchester United have been missing so badly – someone who can find these positions and bring others into the game. The likes of Jessie Lingard are great professionals, however, there is a serious lack of quality when compared to Fernandes. Going forward, United will most certainly look to use Fernandes in this role to bring the best out of his exceptional talent.
The second element of Bruno Fernandes game that was impressive was his passing ability. When he picked up the ball in these attacking areas of the pitch, he was then able to find the right pass into the likes of Martial. He got an assist for Mason Greenwood’s goal and could have easily got another one for Martial’s had he finished it the first time. This shows how excellent his passing is into the key areas of the pitch. He made three key passes in the game and two led to a goal. This once again shows why United brought him in, to find the key pass which other attacking midfielders can’t. He would spread the ball wide to the full-backs, link up with the attacking players and dominate the game with his passing. As mentioned earlier, the other players that Manchester United possess in this area do not have this ability to dominate the game from midfield in these sorts of games.
Below is the pass that Fernandes played into Martial before the Frenchman produced a great individual goal. It allowed him to get in behind the rigid Watford defensive line which once again shows his importance. These passes were commonplace throughout the game and it helped United create chances. Going forward, they will hope to use this more and get more goals as a result.
The Lineups sheet suggested that Watford would line up in a 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1 formation. However, the reality was that they often changed into a back five formation in defensive transitions to deny Manchester United space in behind their defensive line. It would often rotate into a back three when Watford did have the ball and a back five when they were defending. It also meant that the wing-backs could get forward knowing that they had defensive support. All in all, it could be effective going forward as it meant they were able to keep the ball much better when they were in possession. The likes of Doucouré were right up alongside Deeney due to the extra defensive support they had. Watford are also not blessed with pace in defensive areas and having an extra body to provide cover is something that makes a lot of sense tactically.
Below highlights them in defensive shape when Manchester United had possession of the ball. They are all well tucked in together and are not allowing any space for the likes of James to run into. One of their major downfalls in the second half was that they moved away from this system and went to a more conventional system. Had they stuck with this approach they could have got greater success from the game.
They also used three at the back when they had possession of the ball. Their build-up play was therefore based around the three centre-backs to have a numerical advantage when coming out from the back. Manchester United also press in a 4-4-2 with Fernandes and Martial both coming up against the centre-backs. Having an extra defender, therefore, makes coming out with the ball a lot easier in comparison to having only two centre-backs. This is something that has not been seen much under Nigel Pearson this season as they have usually used a 4-2-3-1. This, therefore, was a tactical usage to suit this particular match against the pace United had on the counter-attack. This, combined with their midfield players, meant that they could control possession in large parts of the game.
Below highlights them coming out from the back with possession of the ball. The three centre-backs are in excellent positions and they can use their numerical advantage to bring the ball into more advanced areas of the pitch. This is something they should look to use more of in the future as it allowed them to have a lot of possession during the game. This could be explored in games where they look to dominate the ball and try and break the opponents down.
Manchester United’s build-up
A very interesting development in the game was United’s build-up play from defence to attack. United do like to counter-attack, however, sometimes the requirements of their attacking play mean that they have to build from De Gea, to get the ball into key areas. This has developed in recent weeks and was very noticeable against Watford. There was a specific pattern to this. De Gea would have the ball in his box and a triangle would form consisting of Lindelöf, Maguire, and Matić. When De Gea had the ball, the two centre-backs were always free and the pass would always go to them. The paradigm would then shift as Shaw, who was acting as the covering full-back would push forward and Matic would drop in. Out of the 19 passes that De Gea made, seven of them were to Harry Maguire which highlights how the build-up would often start. The purpose of this was to maintain possession and look to get the ball forward in a way which would unlock the Watford defence.
Below highlights the perfect example of the way United looked to build out. As has not been seen in recent years, De Gea was key in building out from the back instead of simply stopping the ball. His distribution has improved a lot over recent months and this can be attributed to how United like to build out from the back in these types of games. In the bigger games, they may go back to a more direct approach to get the attacking players on the ball quicker, as will be discussed later, however, this could be a good solution to their problems when it comes to breaking teams down.
Despite him not being highlighted in either image, Luke Shaw was also key in this. His recovery pace and ability to make recovering challenges means he is deployed as a covering full-back in these situations. This often shifts with him and Wan-Bissaka rotating in this role. However, the young right-back has been encouraged to get forward more and improve his play in the final third, hence why Shaw is there to cover. He had an excellent game and made 15 defensive recoveries. This, therefore, allows the likes of Maguire to come forward with the ball with the knowledge that Shaw is there to provide support. Matić as the defensive midfielder also provides solidity for United and means they can use him as a third centre-back to pick up the ball and bring it out. Others such as Fred and McTominay like to work in slightly further areas of the pitch so someone like Matić could be ideal for these games. Going forward, games against opponents such as Watford who deploy a more low-block style of defensive play could see better results if they stick to this system of ball-playing from the back.
Below is another example of this. Maguire is another key element. Many have criticised the England International but his role in bringing United out from the back should not be underestimated at all. He possesses strength, footballing intelligence, and recovery ability which allow him to bring United forward. If they could improve in certain areas of the pitch and add more technical players to compensate for their attacking play they have the foundations of a good technical team. In this game, the build-up was very good and it should be credited.
Manchester United’s front four
Despite a shaky season, a real positive for United has been their attacking players. Rashford, Martial, James, Greenwood, and Fernandes have all shown what it means to be Manchester United players. Goals are key to a successful United team and they have that in a large amount. The problem has been getting the consistency of these younger players and ensuring they perform regularly. In this game, despite United being sloppy at times and not being at their best, we saw some excellent attacking play from the front four. James, Fernandes, Greenwood, and Martial were getting into counter-attacking situations and using their blistering pace and skill to get through the Watford backline. The four had good games and highlighted that the future could be bright if the right players are brought in to help them develop.
Below is an example of this blistering counter-attack which we saw in spells of Sunday’s game. All four attacking players are in great areas and have a lot of pace which means they can get forward a lot quicker. This leads to Fernandes being taken down for a penalty which he eventually scores. This highlights that United have the excellent attacking talent and if they can be found at a more regular rate they will be able to score more goals and win more matches.
As previously mentioned, great Manchester United teams always need good attacking players in fluid attacking systems. The defensive base of the team was strong in this game which allowed them to express good attacking play in key areas of the pitch. A noticeable aspect of the attacking play was the fluidity which United played with. Fernandes would find himself on the right, with Greenwood occupying a more central role at times. Martial and James would often rotate to cause Watford problems and confusion as to who to mark. This is the marking of a good team in terms of attacking play. With the likes of Rashford coming back from injury in the coming months and the hopeful addition of a few good attacking players, United could have an excellent range of attacking options. With the attacking fluidity they showed in this game it is evident that they have foundations to build on.
Below is another example of this attacking play. This was the lead up to Mason Greenwood’s excellent finish to make it 3-0, killing the game off. The fluidity which led up to this goal saw Greenwood pick up the ball in his own half before completing a one-two with Fernandes and finishing fantastically well. This once again is an example of the attacking talent that United possess and the foundations of an attacking system.
To conclude, Manchester United were deserved winners despite the VAR decision going for them. They often were sloppy with the ball, however, the second half was a lot better and they showed what they are capable of when the attacking players are all on song. Bruno Fernandes has been key to this, providing United with another dimension of attacking play. The likes of Martial and Greenwood have benefited from this and looked the real part on Sunday. Watford needs to pick themselves up and move on. Losing 3-0 at Old Trafford is nothing to be embarrassed about, however, the games against Crystal Palace and Burnley that are coming up are much more important for their season in terms of survival.