Watford 3-1 Manchester United: Tactical analysis as the Red Devils lose again

Following back to back defeats against Manchester City and Feyenoord, the game against the Hornets assumed added importance and became one that the Old Trafford outfit were determined to win, silencing critics in the process. However, things did not quite go to plan.

Watford 3-1 Manchester United: Tactical analysis as the Red Devils lose again
Ibrahimovic was one of many frustrated (photo: Laurence Griffiths / Getty Images)

The quiet fear harboured by many Manchester United fans is that the Jose Mourinho they got was not the one they craved and that last season’s shambolic defence of the title was a decline of Fabio Capello proportions rather than a one off blip. With the Watford game, all eyes turned to Jose to show he still had the magic touch. If there was a touch, there was nothing magical about it.


It has always been argued that players make systems work and not vice versa. For this game, Jose reverted to a 4-3-3 returning his rested captain, Wayne Rooney to the side. By the second half he had switched to 4-2-3-1. Either way, there was no fluidity and United looked average and mention it quietly, van Gaal like.

Jose Mourinho’s apparent desperation to accommodate Wayne Rooney into the Manchester United starting 11 leaves the team lacking balance and vulnerable to any opposition, especially one with two live wire centre forwards as Watford had in Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo.

Manchester United’s set up leaves Marouane Fellaini as the only player effectively sitting in front of the two centre backs, as the two full backs, Paul Pogba and Wayne Rooney bomb forward to support Zlatan Ibrahimovic. While the Belgian does well in breaking up play, his poor distribution of the ball and his lack of mobility means that United are not able to turn defence into attack quick enough or exploit the pace they have wide like today with Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford.

There is a strong sense of imbalance in the team that means they do not look competent while attacking or defending. There is that sense that there is a player missing or something is not quite working. The presence of both Paul Pogba and Wayne Rooney in the team means not only is the team lop sided defensively but also that both players get into each-others way offensively. The same can be said of the Rooney-Zlatan axis. None of these partnerships complement each other, if anything they are detrimental to one another’s game.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic needs a quick player running off him in the way Watford’s captain Troy Deeney has a willing runner in Ighalo. Rooney is not that kind of player at the moment. In the same way Pogba needs a Claudio Marchisio type player like he had at Juventus. A player with the tenacity and technical ability to run, tackle, occupy spaces and clean up any mess he leaves behind as he tries to take risks. Again Rooney is not that player and neither for that matter is Fellaini.

The reality is whether you are playing 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 or any other system, it only works with the right personnel and this is something Jose Mourinho has struggled to find. A last minute goal against Hull saved face while neither Southampton nor Bournemouth put up much of a fight against the reds but now as the season gets into full swing Jose is left with some tough choices to make.

But at least these players should be able to pass a football... right?

One of the complaints about Louis van Gaal’s United team was the pedestrian sideways passing. The inability to pass the ball forward quickly or sometimes even to just pass to a team mate was a source of frustration for many United fans. This theme was repeated today.

The ponderous passing and the extra touches that United players took before releasing the ball played right into Watford’s hands as they were always able to reorganise themselves quickly whenever they lost possession.

With the three-man defence that Watford played with, United needed to play quick passes that pulled the centre backs out of positions into wide areas they are uncomfortable with. They definitely had the pace of Martial and Rashford to do it but for some reason the passes never happened.

Paul Pogba is more inclined to run with the ball rather than launch a quick pass, Marouane Fellaini is not the best passer of the ball while Wayne Rooney’s passing has not been adequate for a while. All of this pointed to the inevitable squandering of possession and inability to create enough clear cut chances. The frustration for Manchester United fans would have been the presence of much better passers and movers of the football on the bench. Michael Carrick, Daley Blind, Ander Herrera and Juan Mata all sat on Jose’s bench while those on the pitch plundered on like a League 2 side. Morgan Schneiderlin, a more efficient base line midfielder than Fellaini didn’t even make the squad.

That is the frustration, United’s problems are of their own making and one must wonder how much longer Jose is going to keep picking the wrong team

Do they even know what they are supposed to be doing?

The Zlatan-Rooney partnership is not working. Photo: Sky Sports
The Zlatan-Rooney partnership is not working. Photo: Sky Sports

The United team look like one that don’t know what they are supposed to be doing. They are a team without an identity. When you watch Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City or even more painfully Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, you understand completely what the teams are about and what their style of play and intention is. Even Watford today looked like a team with a clear plan and strategy.

Usually Jose Mourinho’s teams have a clear identity, a clear plan and structure. However, this one did not. The United team played like individuals and not a collective unit both in defending and in attacking. The goals conceded were avoidable if the defence was playing as a unit and for all the criticism of Daley Blind for not being ‘physical’ enough, his composure and reading of the game as well as his leadership of the back line was sorely missed as United defended like amateurs.

The attacking wasn’t any better. With everyone expressing their interpretation of what kind of team they would like United to be and everyone’s interpretation being different.

Pogba seemed to think that they are a team who rely on overpowering opponents and so rather than quick passes held on to the ball longer than necessary, Ibrahimovic’s interpretation was a team that relies on neat tidy touches between team mates unfortunately most times there are no team mates around him to do the touches with hence he consistently conceded possession, Martial seemed to think that it was a system where all wingers congest the middle of the pitch thereby denying the team the width it needed and Wayne Rooney seemed to think, well... who knows to be honest.

In summary, it was a shambles. There was the usual willing running and intent of Marcus Rashford and Luke Shaw but that was about it

Who is the team built for?

Another question it seems Jose Mourinho is yet to answer. All the top sides are built to bring the best out of their top player(s) but who is this United system meant to favour? Who is the team being built to serve?

Manchester City are built to get the best from Kevin De Bruyne in his role in the number 10 position and to provide the kind of service that Sergio Aguero can profit from. The Chelsea team is built to bring the best out of Eden Hazard and to provide the service that Diego Costa needs to flourish. Liverpool build around Philippe Coutinho and the list goes on, but who is the United team built around?

The team is definitely not built to get the best out of Paul Pogba as whenever he goes masquerading forward there is a big gap in midfield that wouldn’t be present if the team was being built around him, the team is not built to serve it’s one A-lister in Zlatan Ibrahimovic as there are no willing runners feeding off the big man’s clever touches and doing his running for him. These are the obvious two you would think the team would be shaped around.

For all the arguments of it being a ‘team game’ all the best teams make sure they play to the strengths of their best players because they know they are the ones who make the difference.

The frustration for many United fans is that the team is still being built to serve Wayne Rooney. If this was the Rooney of five years ago that would make perfect sense but the great man is sadly on the decline and let’s be honest he is no Kevin De Bruyne, therefore Mourinho’s insistence on building a team to get the best out of Rooney is baffling. That tactical move has proved both detrimental for Rooney and for Manchester United.

One of Jose Mourinho’s flaws as a manager is his tendency to play favourites. A trend he needs to buck right now if United are to get out of this mess.

And finally, when did Jose Mourinho become such an Arsene Wenger fan?

The Arsenal manager has been criticised and even mocked in some quarters for his obsession with players who play in the number 10 position. Sometimes it appears that he would not be satisfied until he plays a team full of number 10s.

Jose Mourinho has never seemed to see eye to eye with Arsene but perhaps he is being converted. The United manager has consistently played three players who are best suited to and all want to play in the number 10 role as his three central midfielders and as a result has left his team imbalanced and vulnerable. Paul Pogba wants the free role behind the main striker and the freedom to do what he wants and roam where he wants as does Rooney. Fellaini, despite protestations to the contrary is most effective in the oppositions penalty area making a nuisance of himself.

With three players more accustomed to playing a free role behind the centre forward on the pitch, it’s no surprise that United look all out of shape. To be fair to the Belgian, he has given his new role a good go compared to the other two, but he is no Luka Modric.

The sooner Jose Mourinho does what he promised to do on taking the job and put square pegs in square holes, building a compact team that scores more than the opposition, the better for him and for Manchester United. For now, the team must lick their wounds and go again. On the plus side, you are better off having these problems in September. It is a long season and Jose Mourinho has enough time and players to put it right. The question is will United emerge from this darkness in the way Sir Alex Ferguson’s sides of old used to and be challenging by the new year or are they a replica of Jose Mouriho’s Chelsea of 2015/16? Time will tell.