Like last season, Manchester United started this campaign brightly before fading somewhat from their initial great form.
This time, it took until mid-October for the first warning signs as Jose Mourinho’s side lost ground on Manchester City at Anfield. That game was notable not because United failed to win – a point at Anfield should always be considered a decent result for any title-chasing team – but because they didn’t seem to actually try to gain the three points. Judged by itself, it was a good performance, they came away with exactly what Jose Mourinho came for. The players executed it perfectly in that regard, but that doesn’t mean it was the right strategic decision in the first place.
Last season the fall came much earlier. After winning the first three games, United were taken apart in the first half an hour by a Manchester City side who tailed off dramatically in a similar fashion to United a little bit later in the autumn. But United’s form after the Old Trafford derby in early September didn’t make for pleasant reading: in the 11 games between the end of August and early December, United won only twice.
The derby was the beginning of the end for United’s title race, but the next game was the beginning of the end for Wayne Rooney’s time at the club, too. Even he has attested to that.
The reaction of the fans spoke for itself, but the stats were like something of a parody: of the 33 successful passes Rooney made all day, only six of them went forwards, meaning he played only one forward pass every 15 minutes. He didn’t play single through ball, didn’t had a shot on target, and didn’t even make a tackle. It was the kind of performance that saw the fans turn on him, and despite his legendary status as the club’s top scorer, it may well have been justifiable.
But it also pointed to a wider malaise that United would suffer from all season.
Despite conceding three goals that day – something that only happened one more time during the rest of the Premier League campaign, away to Chelsea in a 4-0 defeat – it was more the fact that Untied simply couldn’t penetrate when they were on the ball that shone through.
Watford were a team looking to capitalise on a good run of early season form, and we only two points behind the Red Devils after the game.
This midweek, Jose Mourinho’s side will return to Vicarage Road for the first time since then as they face a new-look Watford side now under the management of Marco Silva, the man who rejuvenated Hull City last season, threatening to take the Tigers through to the final of the Capital One Cup at United’s expense in the second leg of the semi-final in January. It won’t be an easy game.
Indeed, when you look at Manchester United’s away form, that might give cause for concern. Of their six games away from Old Trafford so far this season, the Red Devils have only won two, despite holding a 100% home record, with full points and 20 goals scored, and only one conceded. Away from home, they’ve only scored eight. And they’ve conceded five.
The only saving grace, then, is that Watford have the opposite problem: the Hornets have taken more points away from home than any other Premier League side barring Manchester City and Chelsea. But mirroring United, they too have only won two of their six home games, and have a goal difference of -4 at Vicarage Road – though some of that is perhaps mitigated by a drubbing at the hands of Manchester City a few weeks ago.
As far as United are concerned, however, this might feel like the scene of the crime from last season, and Watford are also more formidable outfit this season than they were last time, even if their home record leaves a lot to be desired at present.
But then, without Wayne Rooney in the team, there’ll be no danger of a listless performance from Jose Mourinho’s side this time around. Right?