Ole Gunnar Solskjaer marked the start to his permanent reign as Manchester United boss with a win against Watford but it was, ultimately, a nail-biting beginning to the new era.
The Reds were in subdued form but went ahead in the match with a first-half goal from Marcus Rashford, before adding another from Anthony Martial in the second 45 minutes. Lively visitors Watford wouldn’t lie down and, after an impressive display, scored a late goal from Abdoulaye Doucoure to set up a worrying last few seconds. United survived to get back to winning ways but Solskjaer gave the impression as he walked off at the end clapping the crowd that he’d come close to a setback.
Old Trafford welcomed Thursday’s news of Solksjaer’s appointment with a huge ‘20LEGEND’ banner that travelled across the heads of the Stretford End fans in recognition of the Norwegian.
The stadium echoed to a back catalogue of tribute songs to the former striker but, as the boss said, this is where the serious work starts and United were distinctly off the pace as we attempted to return to winning ways following back-to-back away defeats before the international break.
The Reds were lethargic as Javi Gracia’s impressive footballing side took command with their slick play. While Watford found their rhythm immediately with sweeping moves that created untold problems for United, the Reds, on the other hand, just couldn’t string any passes together.
Every attempt to break out from Watford’s pressure broke down easily. The visitors had numerous moments chances but United were fortunate their finishing didn’t match their approach work.
Doucoure and Troy Deeney both had opportunities to threaten David De Gea but failed to make there Spaniard work hard. Deeney’s powerful presence almost set up another penalty area chance that De Gea pawed away to safety.
United’s danger was limited but, unlike Watford, when the hosts finally created something of real note, we opened the scoring.
Luke Shaw brilliantly put the brake on penetrating run by Deeney, set off himself upfield and delivered a superb pass to Rashford after 28 minutes. The striker coolly steered his shot past the on-rushing former Reds goalkeeper Ben Foster.
It could have been 2-0, four minutes later, but for a great stop by Foster with his legs as Martial powered in a left-foot drive from just eight yards, following a clever corner routine.
With our noses in front, United had settled down but opportunities remained sparse and, with Doucoure a prominent danger in Watford’s midfield, United’s lead wasn’t a comfortable one.
United really needed to start the second half at a far brisker pace than they had at the opening of the game but it was a similar scenario. It allowed Watford to continue with the composure that hadn’t really been damaged even by Rashford’s goal. They were bright and on top again but a Daryl Janmaat wild piledriver let United off the hook in the 51st minute then, seconds later, Roberto Pereyra created an opening for himself that De Gea managed to smuggle away for a corner.
Watford kept up the early post-interval pressure and Will Hughes curled a shot just wide with the Reds unable to get any traction in the match.
Solskjaer made his first changes after 62 minutes in an effort to inject some vibrant new blood into the Reds’ engine room. He brought on Jesse Lingard and Andreas Pereira for Juan Mata and Ander Herrera.
Marcus Rashford puts United ahead against Watford
Marcus Rashford lifts the ball past Ben Foster to put United in front.
It took the new boys 10 minutes before they really made an impression but, when they finally did, it was a goal-making one. Andreas fed Lingard on the overlap in the 72nd minute and his cross sparked a scramble inside the six-yard area with Martial’s initial stab being blocked by Foster but the Frenchman got up to twist and steer home at the second attempt.
It had been a carbon-copy second half to the first 45 minutes with Watford dangerous but United surviving and snatching the goal. The boss had not looked in over-celebratory mood on the bench as United gave themselves some breathing space. Maybe he had sensed that with his side not at their best, there might still be some further action.
If so, he was bang on as Watford refused to buckle and accept defeat. In the 89th minute, our defence was opened up simply with a zippy move from the Hornets and Doucoure forced his way through to provide the sting in the tail with a simple finish past De Gea.
It meant a nail-biting finale which United survived and Solskjaer puffed out his cheeks in relief at the final whistle.
Anthony Martial snaps up United’s second goal against Watford.