The dominant narrative this season is one of conservatism at club whose history is dominated by the romanticism of attacking flair. It is an uncomfortable truth for Manchester United’s manager Louis van Gaal; and a contemporary system that is hard to swallow for the club’s legion supporters. And yet, whatever the Dutchman’s penchant for reigning in the club’s historical bent towards a more bombastic style, Van Gaal is unlikely to be helped by a rash of post-international break injuries – including to strikers Wayne Rooney and Anthony Martial.
If the Dutchman’s side wasn’t limp enough this season the duo’s absence, along with four other first team players, stretches the Reds’ paper-thin squad – and is set to ask serious questions of United’s ability to break down a Watford side that is most effective on the counter-attack. Not least because Van Gaal is unlikely to be able to call on an experienced number nine of any type this weekend, with James Wilson lacking “match rhythm” and Marouane Fellaini also injured.
And yet Saturday lunchtime’s fixture is also one that could play into the Reds’ hands, with Quique Flores’ side most comfortable attacking on the counter and United seemingly reluctant to expand from a deeper position.
Indeed, there is little in the outlook that foretells of an expansive game from either side. It is the kind of fixture in which United will dominate possession and where the result is dependent on the Reds taking whatever chances are created. Therein lies United’s problem, of course.
Still, with injuries also comes opportunities; youngsters Marcus Rashford, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and Axel Tuanzebe could all be on the bench and Van Gaal maintains that the squad’s spirit is strong whatever the mix of results.
“I have noticed,” said the manager, “that every Manchester United player wants to perform what we have agreed in the training sessions. The spirit of the squad is fantastic.”
Victory will take United top of the Premier League table, if only for a few hours with Manchester City and Arsenal also in action this weekend.
Meanwhile, Flores’ side has conceded just four goals at Vicarage Road this season, with United the only Premier League side to boast a better defensive record at home.
“They play a 4-4-2 system with two strikers and two rows of four players, and that is always difficult to play against,” Van Gaal added.
“Of course, it’s dependable on the organisation of Watford’s defence, but Quique Flores has done it and it shall be very difficult. Every opponent is motivated to beat us, but as a Manchester United player, you have to cope with that pressure and normally we do that.”
The Saturday lunchtime kick-off is the first featuring Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger since a series of attacks in Paris, including one a Stade de France during France’s international friendly against Germany just over a week ago. Van Gaal has spoken to the pair, together with Martial, about the incident. Both Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger are expected to start.
“What they told me is private but we have communicated, of course,” van Gaal said. “I think, for every human being in this world, it is a big blow. I don’t think I have to mention what our discussions were. Schweinsteiger and Schneiderlin can play if we don’t take into account this event and what has happened.”
Meanwhile, Watford continue to pick enough points to suggest that the Hornets will remain in the Premier League come next May. Four wins from the past 10 games leave Watford in 11th, though it is a run built – much like United – on defensive solidity rather than attacking flair.
“We will approach the game with respect, organisation, tradition and passion,” said Flores. “We have to reference the matches we have played against big teams. Against Manchester City we were really competitive for 45 minutes, against Arsenal we were for one hour, so our target for this match is to be competitive for one-and-a-half hours.”
Watford’s home record and United’s paucity of attacking options suggests a tight game ahead.
Team news and line-ups
With Rooney and Martial out because of illness and injury Memphis Depay could lead United’s attack, with Wilson lacking match fitness, and Fellaini also injured. Michael Carrick, Antonio Valencia and Luke Shaw are also out, but Matteo Darmian is available after suspension.
“I think that everybody knows Michael Carrick and Anthony Martial are injured, but also injured is Marouane Fellaini. That’s a surprise because I thought he was recovered after the international break, but still he is injured. And that’s a big blow because Rooney is ill, so we have a big problem, I think,” admitted Van Gaal.
“I have always organised a shadow player for every position, but when all the injuries happen in the same position, you have a problem as a trainer-coach and you have to play a little bit differently.
“You can solve that problem because we have multi-functional players and they can play in many positions. I have rotated this season more than ever, because of the amount of matches we have had. Every player is used to playing – even the younger ones have played a lot of minutes.”
Fortunately, although Martial sits out this weekend’s fixture, the Frenchman’s injury sustained against England at Wembley is not as serious as it first appeared.
“It’s not so heavy as everybody has written in the media, but he cannot play against Watford,” van Gaal told MUTV. “Maybe PSV for Martial but it’s not certain, and I think Rooney shall also play then because illness is not something of many days.”
Watford will make a late call on Nigerian striker Odion Ighalo, who retured late from international duty with Nigeria. Sebastian Prodl, Tommie Hoban and Joel Ekstrand are all injured.
Watford subs from: Arlauskis, Holebas, Belkalem, Abdi, Behrami, Berghuis, Paredes, Guedioura, Ibarbo, Diamanti, Dyer, Oularé, Gilmartin
United subs from: Romero, Darmian, Varela, Borthwick-Jackson, Blind, Tuanzebe, Pereira, Wilson, Rashford
Referee: Robert Madley
Assistants: M McDonough, M Perry
Fourth Official: A Taylor
Watford 0-1 United