Belfast Telegraph

Watford defeat brings unwanted treble for shoddy Manchester United

Worst performance of new Red Devils era allows astute Watford to inflict third loss in a week on Jose

By Jack Pitt-Brooke

One week, three games, three defeats. This is not what the Jose Mourinho era at Manchester United was meant to look like.

United were out-classed at home by Manchester City and never got going at Feyenoord. But this defeat to Watford at Vicarage Road was the worst of all. They were out-run and out-fought, beaten 3-1 by two late goals.

Mourinho's tenure is just over one month old and any team with a new manager and new players can expect to improve. But this, United's seventh game of the season, was their worst result and performance.

Runs this bad are quite familiar in United's recent history. They lost four in a row under Louis van Gaal last December. But Mourinho was brought in to improve standards and get results. And this week they have looked as far away as ever.

No one expects Mourinho teams to play exciting, expansive football. But Watford's win owed to their doing the basics better than United: an early aerial assault, defensive organisation, running and clever counter-attacks.

Walter Mazzarri and Mourinho never got on when they were in Italy, and Mazzarri said it was because of how similar they were. Here, Mazzarri beat his old foe with recognisable Mourinho football.

But Mazzarri was only appointed by Watford this summer too. What is Mourinho's excuse?

Mourinho teams are meant to be built on a strong defence but here they were a mess, even with Chris Smalling coming in for Daley Blind at centre-back. They struggled with Watford's direct style and were twice cut open by similar goals: a simple ball down to the by-line and a cut-back into the box. Etienne Capoue put Watford 1-0 up that way, and Juan Zuniga made it 2-1 with just seven minutes left.

In between those two goals United equalised through Marcus Rashford and had chances to go 2-1 up. But they never fully convinced, or threatened nearly as often as they should with the talent they had on the pitch.

Heurelho Gomes had to make one save from Zlatan Ibrahimovic to keep the score at 1-1, but that was that. Mourinho clearly does not yet know his best team or system. Whether he even knows who his best players are is not clear from the sides he puts out.

The big issue for Mourinho is how to get the most out of Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba and Wayne Rooney at the same time. One solution would be not play Rooney, but Mourinho tried again to find a new balance.

So the 4-2-3-1 went out for a 4-3-3, with Rooney and Pogba backed up by Marouane Fellaini in central midfield. This was a better system for Pogba than playing in a pair, and he showed flashes of his quality, not least when he hit the bar from 30 yards in the first half.

But Rooney was no more effective in a midfield three than he was there for England at Euro 2016. Rashford did, at least, start his first Premier League game under Mourinho, and scored the equaliser. But this did not look like a United team just about to click.

United never looked ready for the aerial assault that Watford had planned for them. Mourinho teams are meant to be strong in the air, but Mazzarri decided to target them that way anyway, firing high balls into the box.

When Sebastian Prodl got a free header on Jose Holebas' free-kick, United should have woken up.

But just two minutes later Watford missed an even better chance, which showed just how unprepared United were at the back. Smalling and David de Gea both went for the same long ball and collided, presenting Odion Ighalo with an open goal. Somehow, he missed.

United were still walking through the game, and it cost them. Anthony Martial had the ball at left-back and was blind-sided by a Miguel Britos challenge of dubious legality. Daryl Janmaat stole in and pulled the ball back into the box, where Capoue drove home. Martial, who had hurt his head in a collision with Janmaat before, limped off.

Rashford equalised on the hour mark after a clever move with Ibrahimovic ended with the teenager lashing home, the Swedish ace's cross having hit Valon Behrami in the box. Ibrahimovic had United's one real chance after that, from Fellaini's diagonal ball, but he could not beat Gomes.

It looked as if Watford were tiring, but their substitutes Nordin Amrabat and Zuniga gave them an extra edge. Amrabat broke down the right unchallenged, to Mourinho's fury, and played in Roberto Pereyra. He pulled the ball back to Zuniga, who scored with his first touch.

United created little in the last seven minutes, and Watford's third came in added time. Isaac Success, another substitute, broke and passed to Zuniga. He was tripped by Fellaini, and Troy Deeney converted the penalty.

Mazzarri's substitutions were better than Mourinho's, and so were his tactics.

WATFORD: Gomes, Cathcart, Prodl, Britos; Janmaat, Pereyra, Behrami, Capoue (Zuniga, 82 mins), Holebas; Deeney, Ighalo (Success, 90 mins). Unused subs: Pantilimon, Kenedy, Watson, Amrabat, Guedioura.

MAN UNITED: De Gea, Valencia (Mata, 61 mins), Smalling, Bailly, Shaw (Memphis, 85 mins), Pogba, Fellaini, Rashford, Rooney, Martial (Young, 38 mins), Ibrahimovic.

Unused subs: Romero, Blind, Carrick, Herrera.

Referee: Michael Oliver

Man of the match: Etienne Capoue

Match rating: 7/10

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