It was summer time in Manchester. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and the ink was just about drying on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s new contract.
Everything was set up for a glorious afternoon watching Manchester United in their element, the shackles well and truly removed, and the concerns of months past now but a distant nightmare.
For much of the first half in particular, Solskjaer cut a frustrated figure as his side were well off the pace set by an industrious Hornets outfit. The manager was regularly moved to berate his players, demanding a more energetic, dynamic response to the way the game was going as Abdoulaye Doucoure, Troy Deeney and Roberto Pereyra all had opportunities to give the visitors the lead.
Louis van Gaal had this week claimed that Solskjaer’s football was a glorified bus-parking exercise, and there was a long spell in the first half when it could easily have been the Dutchman in the dug-out so lifeless did United look.
But United’s counter-attacking approach under Solskjaer thrives on any space left in the opposition half and they were to exemplify that with the opening goal of the afternoon.
Deeney attempted to beat Luke Shaw in the right-hand channel but was dispossessed by the England left-back, who emerged with the ball and charged into space before delivering a sublime low pass behind the defensive line for Marcus Rashford to take a touch and slide an effort beyond Ben Foster.
For the remainder of the first half, United were a bit more like themselves. Their attacks had a bit more vibrancy about them, while their defending was more proactive than it had earlier been.
Yet the second half saw the game revert to its flow, with Watford asking all the questions and United appearing unequipped to provide convincing answers. With Nemanja Matic and Paul Pogba a long way from the top of their form, United just couldn’t seem to get a grip on the game and it made for a nervous closing stanza on the Old Trafford terraces.
Just as in the first half, there was a timely goal to release the pressure as Anthony Martial scooped home at the second attempt after Jesse Lingard had squared a low pass to him from the right. It is not an afternoon that will live long in the memory for anything other than the reception for Solskjaer before kick-off, but the Frenchman at least ensured that United would get the result they needed.
It turned out to be an even more vital goal than had appeared likely when Doucoure did brilliantly to take down a bouncing ball and then take down a return pass to slide past David de Gea. But coming in the 90th minute it was always going to be too little too late for Javi Gracia’s side.
The win does at least arrest United’s mini-slide. They had lost to Arsenal and Wolves in their last two outings, providing them with a setback in the top-four tussle and a terminal blow in the FA Cup. Three points against a vibrant Watford side is a step forward whatever the nature of the performance when set in that context.
But this was also a timely reminder that Solskjaer needs and wants to make key changes to this squad. They were just back from the international break but it often looked more like they were coming back from summer holidays without having touched a ball in months.
The momentum provided by the manager’s appointment on Thursday had not had the fullest extent of the desired effect on the pitch, but tell that to the league table.
The grey skies continue to clear around Old Trafford.