For many at Watford, the feeling was one of optimism as they headed to the northwest to take on Manchester United. This was not the sort of game which would define their season; anything from the clash could potentially have undone some of the negativity brewed by a recent downturn in fortunes.
Despite all that, there was something disappointing about the 3-0 loss that would be bestowed onto the Hornets. The visitors at Old Trafford were arguably the better side for parts of the encounter, particularly in the first half, but returned home empty handed. A scalp was there to be taken, yet it remained unscathed.
To view those as points dropped would be an overstatement considering the opposition, but Watford's predicament — 19th in the table with fewer than three months of domestic football left to contest — means every little helps in the fight for Premier League survival. Said fight is reaching crunch time; any small result in Manchester would have gone a long way towards securing their short-term objectives.
Head coach Nigel Pearson appreciated post-match that his side had been wasteful at a time when it would have paid dividends not to be so: “It’s frustrating in the sense that, when you play bigger clubs, it’s very important that when you create chances or have opportunities, you do everything you can to take them.”
The early stages of the tie suggested Watford were well in with a chance of snatching some reward from the game. A high press worked exceptionally well, exploiting the hesitancy of United's defence in possession. It nearly led to a goal just three minutes in as Troy Deeney pounced on a loose ball after a mix-up between Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelöf, but Luke Shaw got back in time before the striker could shoot.
Further opportunities for Abdoulaye Doucouré among others also went begging, and the Hornets were made to pay for their profligacy when Bruno Fernandes gave the hosts the lead from the penalty spot. Vexation permeated the atmosphere in the visiting dressing room heading into the break.
“We didn’t take the chances we had early in the game," said Pearson. "I think our attempts to press them high up the pitch caused a few problems in terms of frustrating them at times.
“I think we were a bit annoyed with ourselves to come in at half-time 1-0 down because we had some good chances and showed decent discipline in terms of our shape, but from an attacking situation we’ve been countered and conceded a penalty.”
When, early in the second half, the ball was prodded into the United net from a Watford corner, the travelling support was sent into pandemonium. It was the goal they had deserved — and yet it was shortly to be ruled out for a handball from Craig Dawson. In the blink of an eye, any momentum for the Hornets was quelled, and the events of the rest of the match seemed fairly inevitable.
On that moment, Pearson said: “We’ve had a goal disallowed which came at a moment when we were doing pretty well. I think we’re all becoming accustomed to having to wait for confirmation.”
Crunch time approaching
The head coach feels there is a lesson for his side to learn in this defeat, particularly with crucial fixture approaching in March and April as the battle to beat the drop intensifies: “It’s been frustrating for sure, and we’ll get back to work. We’ve played against a good team, we’ve had our opportunities and not taken them. This is what playing in the top flight is about; you’ve got to be able to make the most of the good moments in the game.”
However, Pearson will continue with the stratagem which he has put to work during his time at Vicarage Road thus far. It's a policy of honesty, integrity and diligence, and lest it be forgotten that it reaped tangible rewards for Watford over the course of December and January without which the Hornets would now surely be dead and buried.
“We will continue to send the same message, and that is that we have to be responsible for our own future, and we have to recognise what gets us success in games," he asserted. "That is to function as efficiently as we can, both as a defensive unit and in attack.”
In a tactical sense, it's hard to argue with the performance of Pearson and his players in Manchester, though the head coach is well aware that individual errors and lapses of concentration ultimately cost his side. He may be at a loss as to how to amend those: “It’s a difficult one to reflect on. I know we’ve been a little bit wasteful with our chances, I know we’ve been countered too often during the game.”
Plenty, then, for Watford to work on as they prepare to host champions elect Liverpool this coming weekend.