Last Thursday week Manchester United hit rock bottom in Denmark as the Reds suffered yet another defeat under Louis van Gaal. Defeat at Midtjylland was described as the Dutchman’s ‘Olympiacos moment’ and few could see a way back for Van Gaal at United; even the most patient fans had finally lost faith in the veteran manager. Yet, United heads into a run of potentially tricky run of fixtures in fantastic form after three blistering performances in the space of six days. What a difference a few days makes.
First came the potential banana-skin tie at Shrewsbury Town in the FA Cup, with many pundits assuming a surprise was on the cards. Yet, an injury-ravaged United side made short work of Shrewsbury, effectively winning the tie within the first 45 minutes. Next came the return leg in the Europa League against Midtjylland, a game that United had to win to keep alive the club’s faint Champions League hopes. Again, a youthful side easily beat the Danes, with Memphis Depay, Juan Mata and new Stretford End hero Marcus Rashford displaying the creative energy that has been missing for much of the campaign.
Finally, last Sunday’s victory over Arsenal represented the most satisfying Old Trafford has witnessed this season. Van Gaal’s side played with pace and aggression – the fearlessness of youth producing a scoreline that flattered the visitors. Despite the Londoners’ two goals Arsenal did little to suggest the club’s ‘serial bottler’s’ tag is unjustified.
Rashford was again the hero, demonstrating not only the kind of natural talent required to play for United, but the level head needed to survive at the top. The locally born striker showed great maturity leading the line while proving a real handful for the experienced Laurent Koscielny.
Van Gaal’s side heads into the midweek fixture against Watford in a rare period of good form – a team full of confidence ahead of the Hornets’ first league visit to Old Trafford since 2007. History is on United’s side too, with the Reds having won the last 10 games against Watford while remaining undefeated against the side since 1986.
Watford has enjoyed a good season despite a poor run of form against the top sides. The Vicarage Road club has lost all seven matches played against the top five this season but has lost only three of the team’s other 20 games. It is a series of results that ensures manager Quique Sanchez Flores has been a monumental hit at Watford since his arrival in the summer, although the Spaniard sounded a note of caution ahead of Wednesday’s game.
“Of course, we are expecting a difficult match, very tough,” Flores said. “United are on a good run, playing well, a young team, very quick with skill. But we are always in our line, our way, respecting the teams but always we are there to be competitive and add points in the matches.”
In fact, Watford may well be a victim of the club’s success heading into the business end of the season. An excellent first half of the campaign ensured Premier League safety, although the Hornets have now failed to score in five of the team’s last seven matches, including a scoreless draw with Bournemouth at the weekend. The signs that complacency has set in are strong.
United, by contrast, scored 11 goals in three games last week, with Van Gaal’s team looking to secure back-to-back league victories for the first time since November. Still, Van Gaal is yet to get carried away by the new-found form, suggesting that fatigue is a factor ahead of Wednesday’s game.
“It’s a very difficult programme for us because we have to recover within two days for the second time,” the Dutchman said. “We have a small selection so it’s difficult and I cannot rotate too much. But I feel that the players are doing everything to recover. They are very professional and I hope that we can continue that”.
Despite Van Gaal’s regular complaint about English football’s busy schedule, supporters hope the manager will persist with a winning formula. For once the Dutchman has created a hungry side seemingly capable of going on a run of victories.
Team news and line-ups
United subs from: Romero, Poole, Riley, McNair, Fosu Mensah, Darmian, Carrick, Januzaj, Pereira, Martial
Watford subs from: Gomes, Nyom, Suarez, Prodl, Anya, Abdi, Holebas
With the top four once seemingly out of reach, but now within touching distance again, United must win to ensure Champions League hopes remain alive. Manchester City faces Liverpool in midweek, while Arsenal travels to Tottenham Hotspur at the weekend, meaning United could take advantage of rivals dropping points with victory over Watford.
Injuries still plague Van Gaal’s squad, though, with 15 players unavailable to the Dutch manager. Van Gaal offered some positive news this week, stating that Matteo Darmian, Chris Smalling and Anthony Martial are all close to a return. One of the trio, probably Smalling, is likely to start on Wednesday.
David De Gea was a welcome return in goal for United on Sunday. The Spaniard saved from Nacho Monreal early in the first half – had a goal come it would have set a very different tone for the rest of the game. At the back, injuries forced Van Gaal’s hand once again, with the Dutchman resorting to using two midfielders in central defence while two academy graduates completed the game at full-back.
Smalling’s return alongside Daley Blind at centre back is welcome while Marcos Rojo should be fit enough to start at left-back. Youngster Tim Fosu-Mensah will again start on the bench after making his début against Arsenal. Guillermo Varela was one of the stand-out performers on Sunday, although he faces a challenge at right-back from the returning Matteo Darmian.
In midfield Van Gaal has seemingly stumbled on his best combination, despite the season being two-thirds old. Morgan Schneiderlin and Ander Herrera complimented each other well on Sunday. Schneiderlin’s tough-tackling was missing from the reverse fixture at the Emirates Stadium back in November while Ander Herrera managed to start attacks, linking well with Mata and scoring a crucial goal. Not bad for a player who is yet to convince his manager, despite contributing to 15 goals since his arrival at the club. Only Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata have scored more.
Further forward there is little reason for Van Gaal to tinker with a fine attacking unit. The combination of Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata and Memphis is beginning to yield excellent results, with all three players in good form. Pace from wide areas benefits Mata, who has willing runners behind the opposition defence. Lingard remains a player better off-the-ball than on it, although with three goals and two assists in his last six games the England man is contributing strongly.
On the left, Memphis is finding his feet in England after a season of inconsistency. The Dutch winger arrived to much fanfare in the summer but has been in Anthony Martial’s shadow since September. It is an injury to the French striker that is seemingly the catalyst for Memphis’ upturn in form. Van Gaal may soon need to tweak his tactics in order to accommodate both.
Local hero Rashford is set to continue up front after scoring four and assisting one in two games. The 18-year-old has benefited from a lack of knowledge about his game but has also breathed fresh life into United’s attacking line-up. Just where Wayne Rooney fits into this new look attack, once the skipper returns from injury, is an interesting question. Can Van Gaal find a way of accommodating Memphis, Mata, Martial, Rooney and Rashford in the same starting 11? It is a far better problem to have than those facing the club for much of the campaign.
United 2-0 Watford
Referee: Mike Jones
Assistants: I Hussin, G Beswick
Fourth official: J Moss