Watford – Manchester United: The Tinkerman Condemns Ole To His Death Knell (4-1)

How much turmoil can it take for a manager to lose his job? The latest portion of Manchester United’s twisted experiment took them on a hellish trip to Vicarage Road, where five goals, a red card, and old friends turned enemies put the nail in the coffin for Ole Gunnar Solskjær.

Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.


In an arena where one is only ever as good as your last display, the lifespan of the men at the helm is shorter than ever. But in a culture where managers are never far away from the hot seat, Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s trials and tribulations in the new campaign have made for a uniquely painful concoction.

A campaign brimming with optimism has given way to gloom. Stellar signings have merely added to a list of tactical problems Solskjær has been unable to solve while age old structural defects leave the shattered pieces of Sir Alex Ferguson’s empire still in tatters. All that remains from the golden age is empty rhetoric, so as the manager has slipped from one humiliation to the next, one question has taken center stage. What will force the owners to call time on the shortest ‘long term’ project in the game?

Lining up his men in a 4-1-4-1 shape, Watford manager Claudio Ranieri made three alterations to the starting eleven that lost 1-0 to Arsenal in the side’s last outing. Two of those adjustments were in the middle of the park, where Imran Louza sat at the base of midfield behind Moussa Sissoko and Tom Cleverley. The other change was on the left of the back four as Adam Masina replaced Danny Rose.

Solskjær abandoned a back five, falling back on a 4-2-3-1 system for this game. Coming off the back of a sobering 2-0 defeat in the Manchester derby, he brought three new players into the lineup. Fred dropped to the bench, making way for Nemanja Matić. Marcus Rashford then returned from illness to feature on the left wing while Jadon Sancho earned his first league start in over a month on the right.


Ranieri imposes his philosophy

Ranieri had challenged his men to press high up the field from the off, unlike in their last two matches against Arsenal and Southampton. His side obliged, operating from a ball-oriented 4-1-4-1 formation.



This orientation was clear in the role of the wingers, since they often took up quite narrow positions. On the right flank, Cleverly frequently covered out wide on behalf of Ismaïla Sarr, who could take away Maguire as an option in the buildup. Emmanuel Denis led the effort from the front, steering the play outwards to one of the central defenders, while the eights adopted marking roles on the double pivot. Louza then shuttled around the center circle to monitor movements from United’s front four.

So, Watford accepted they would arrive late at the fullbacks, but that was far from a problem. On the right flank, Aaron wan-Bissaka, and Sancho repeatedly outplayed the wide men to break further up the pitch only to run into a self-erected wall. The double pivot did not always offer adequate support structures, while Matić was prone to dropping between the central defenders at inopportune moments. Throw in a lack of halfspace occupation, and United hardly made anything from spells on the ball.


24th minute: buildup sequence from Manchester United. Once Victor Lindelöf receives the ball, Matić then drops off between the central defenders, removing one more offensive option from the equation. Scott McTominay is barely a usable option, forcing Aaron wan-Bissaka down the line to find Sancho.


A little over five minutes into the contest, Watford’s approach bore fruit. Sissoko harried Fernandes from a throw in, provoking a wildly hacked pass into the air. Joshua King chased the loose ball, winning a foot race against McTominay, who took him down inside the penalty area.

Sarr stepped up from twelve yards, missing his strike, but Kiko Femenía rifled the rebound on the volley into the roof of the net. An infringement from Maguire handed Sarr a second chance at glory, only for David de Gea to repeat the feat and keep the two teams level.


A deserved advantage

United relied on a familiar 4-2-3-1 structure off the ball. Cristiano Ronaldo picked up one of the two central defenders, often the one that he was closest to at the start of the buildup sequence, and stood next to him. Bruno Fernandes then started behind him, trying to pick moments to move out from Watford’s six space, where he initially kept an eye out for Louza, to put pressure on the ball carrier.

However, they rarely got chances to press higher up in the first place. The home team deferred to risk averse ball progression, sending long balls through the free center-back or goalkeeper Ben Foster into United’s half. Exploiting some confused defending at the back, they stole a march on the visitors.

Femenía presented himself as an outlet on the right flank after his teammates secured control of the ball, whipping a cross to the far post. Dennis, who often ended up swapping places with King from the left side of the attack, picked up the second ball, driving at wan-Bissaka before cutting back the play to the edge of the six yard box. There stood King, whose shot hit the net to put United behind.

The second goal in the 44th minute was endemic of recurrent coordinative issues in the back four that have plagued the outfit this season. Luke Shaw failed to close down the width soon enough, moving out too late to Femenía, while Harry Maguire dropped all the way off to the byline, leaving Sarr free in the box. A rasping finish doubled Watford’s lead, leaving United in the lurch at the halfway point.


44th minute: buildup to Watford’s second goal, where Sarr is free in acres of room to strike at goal.


An instantaneous impact

Desperate situations compel desperate action. Thus, before the start of the second half, Solskjær made two substitutions. Bringing in two men from the cold that have racked up less than 200 minutes in the league this campaign between them, Donny van de Beek and Anthony Martial both entered the fray.

And the former set about making up for lost time. In the 50th minute, United worked the play into the final third, where Sancho received the ball on the right wing. His pinpoint delivery met the head of Ronaldo, whose cushioned aerial pass found van de Beek. The flying Dutchman’s diving header halved the deficit, changing the dynamics of the game.



Most of what was good from United in their following attacks involved van de Beek. Not only did he patiently wait between the lines to force Watford into making decisions, but his teammates around him delayed appropriately to transition through him into the final third. Ronaldo came to life, coming close to scoring several times, and Solskjær’s men looked something like a functional outfit at last.


The final chapter

But just as United were getting back into the contest, an error dashed their hopes. Receiving a lateral pass from Victor Lindelöf, Harry Maguire drove forward from the back. The central defender could not break free from Tom Cleverley, who intercepted his stride to draw a foul. Doling out a second yellow card, the referee gave the captain his marching orders, leaving the guests down to ten men.

Solskjær refrained from turning to the bench for the third time. Now deploying his men in a 4-4-1 setup, Matić dropped back into Maguire’s spot at left center-back while a double pivot of Fernandes and van de Beek took form ahead of him. United lost their momentum, giving way to a final sting from the Hornets. João Pedro and Dennis extended Watford’s lead in injury time, leaving United on the end of a humiliating loss.



Takeaways

Flying out of the traps, Ranieri’s men thoroughly deserved a result from this clash. The victory lifted the hosts into sixteenth place, moving them four points clear of the relegation zone. Even though their high pressing scheme did not operate perfectly, it set the tone for a disciplined display. At this stage, it seems little more than that is needed to cause this iteration of Manchester United a world of problems.

Solskjær’s reign at Old Trafford Manchester has now ended as the owners relieved him of his duties less than twenty four hours after the final whistle. The margin of defeat may have been what pushed him over the edge, but frankly, he was a dead man walking for much of the last month at the latest. Until now, it is unclear who will be at the wheel in the long term, but drastic improvement in the organization of its talented squad is in dire need to steer back the outfit in the correct direction.



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