The international break is over and, this weekend, Watford will return to Vicarage Road to host Manchester United. Given the form of the respective teams, Javi Gracia’s will carry more than a puncher’s chance into that game. United might be bringing plenty of star power to North London, but they’re carrying a lot of dysfunction too and, as they did against Tottenham, it’s more than likely that Watford will exploit that.
Set-pieces will obviously be a focus. Gracia’s players exerted plenty of pressure from open-play in that last win and, to an extent, it’s irrelevant that their goals game from two dead-ball situations. In this instance though, it’s highly pertinent: amid all the headlining chaos at Old Trafford and the many, many melodramas of Jose Mourinho’s reign, United have quietly lost the ability to defend in their own box.
Mourinho’s profile has made that easy to miss. His reputation pitches him as a pragmatist, as the head-coach who expends nearly all of his organisational energy on creating defensive security. Yet, possibly because of the personnel issues suffered at centre-half, United have remained frail in exactly those areas. That’s been exposed already this season. The defeat to Brighton was attributable to more than just one factor, but two of the three goals were the result of moves which really should have been neutered – Glenn Murray’s first, which saw him and his thirty-four year-old legs glide in front of Eric Bailly to flick past David De Gea, and Shane Duffy’s close-range second, which came from a failure to clear a corner.
A week later, Spurs were handed the momentum at Old Trafford, when Harry Kane was able to create space for himself from a simple corner routine and head back across De Gea. It was an excellent finished admittedly, but the resistance was bizarrely limp. Who is the one player that Phil Jones should have been mindful of in his own box. And who, incredibly, was the one player he allowed to ease away from him? That was such a bad piece of defending that, really, its diagnosis had to lie in something deeper than just his own carelessness.
This has been a theme from the start of the campaig, actually, from the moment Jamie Vardy nodded in that cross-cum-shot which had rebounded off the post. Fortuitous perhaps, definitely inconsequential given the final score, but the aesthetic was the same: static Manchester United defenders exchanging confused glances and very little sense of order.
Gracia won’t have missed any of those incidents. His forward line is diverse enough to carry a broad threat, but its most obvious strength is its physicality. From set-pieces, that’s an even bigger strength: they are a very large side and, when equipped with the right sort of delivery, provide a stern examination of even the most well-drilled unit.
And United are certainly not that. This isssue isn’t just an early season anomaly either, because it was detectable in many of their performances last year, too. Both Manchester derbies featured set-piece goals (from Nicolas Otamendi and Vincent Kompany) which shouldn’t have been conceded, Eric Bailly’s own-goal against Liverpool was the result of allowing a simple ball to snake into their six-yard box and, in the prior defeat to Brighton, another badly defended corner gave Chris Hughton’s players a crucial 1-0 win. Elsewhere, while the Champions League campaign is best forgotten, it should be remembered that Sevilla delivered their own knockout blow from a corner. Wissam Ben Yedder’s first goal that night was all his own work, but his second was – again – the result of Mourinho’s defenders not seeming to understand their roles. Ben Yedder is hardly Andy Carroll and, yet, there he was, completely free inside the six-yard box to nudge the ball (just about over the line).
It’s a long list: think of Alvaro Morata’s free header at Stamford Bridge, Christian Eriksen’s goal inside ten seconds at Wembley, and West Bromwich Albion’s winner at Old Trafford; put the ball into the box against this team and good things happen.
This is what a lack certainty breeds and it’s also what Watford are in a position to exploit. The centre-back situation at United is opaque, with Mourinho seemingly changing his mind about certain players on a week-to-week basis. The secondary question is whether any of the players are actually good enough, but the primary issue – the more instructive problem – is that no true partnerships exist. Between Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, Victor Lindelof and Eric Bailly, there isn’t enough continuity in selection for any cohesion to grow. There’s no understanding. Mourinho probably isn’t to blame for that, he did spend his entire summer searching for a better solution, but it’s neverthess a weakness which he has to bear.
And one, probably, which will see Watford record a five-straight victory this weekend. They’re not a plucky underdog, they’re just a good team – well-stocked, well-coached, and loaded with excellent delivery. As Tottenham found, teams turning up and expecting to role them over are going to be in for a nasty surprise this season. Yes, prior history dictates that this good form should be appraised on a game-by-game basis, there is something in the water at that club, but there’s no reason to believe that they’ll present anything other than a formidable challenge to Mourinho’s players.
Vicarage Road is loud. It’s a modern ground, but it has those steep tiers which can be very intimidatng – and it will be so on Saturday night, especially with a perfect record to protect. This could and should get ugly for United.