Solskjær's departure takes the headlines, but that Watford performance was extraordinary
Photo by Ash Donelon/Getty Images

The ball was driven powerfully through the legs of David de Gea and that was that. At 3-1, Watford were now, surely, out of reach, and the deafening roar from all four sides of Vicarage Road told you as much.

The goalscorer, João Pedro, was able to muster a momentary smile, but soon his expression was one of sorrow and longing. His teammates ran over to congratulate the Brazilian on his first Premier League goal but also to console him during his moment of reflection; a tear ran down Pedro's cheek as he pointed to the sky, remembering his step-father, Carlos Junior, who passed away at the beginning of the month.

Embed from Getty Images

There was one last embrace from William Troost-Ekong and the forward's game face had returned just in time for Watford to add their fourth through Emmanuel Dennis in a sensational victory over Manchester United — one which sealed the fate of manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær.

All eyes had been on the Norwegian before kick-off and they remained so until well after the final whistle. United had won just one league game in their last six and had been played off the park by rivals Liverpool and Manchester City during that run. If it hadn't been for the 3-0 triumph at an equally lacklustre Tottenham Hotspur at the end of October, Solskjær might have departed before the trip to Vicarage Road; it was well documented pre-match that defeat in Hertfordshire could be the final nail in his coffin.

Embed from Getty Images

Yet on a night when attention was supposed to be elsewhere, Watford managed to make it about themselves — and that is precisely how the story should be recited once the hysteria surrounding Manchester United's managerial position has abated.

The visitors were poor as the time-bomb continued to tick for Solskjær, but Watford's performance was utterly, absolutely, emphatically outstanding.

The scenes after Pedro's goal were indicative of the squad's togetherness, which has remained prevalent despite a difficult start to the season and an early change of head coach. This performance was so much more than a victory on the mental playing field, though; it was a technical exhibition from the players and a sheer tactical masterclass from Claudio Ranieri.

Embed from Getty Images

Because whatever the predicament of your opposition, you can only beat what's in front of you — and that's an awful lot harder to do when one of your opposite numbers is a certain Cristiano Ronaldo.

That man gave the Watford defence its fair share of frights. After a quiet first-half, Ronaldo came to life during a vast improvement by United in the early stages of the second. He rose highest to head Jadon Sancho's cross back across goal for Donny van de Beek to nod home and got in behind the Hornets defence several times afterwards, but his finishing was poor by his lofty standards, apart from the occasion when he drew a superb save from Ben Foster at 2-1.

Embed from Getty Images

Overall, however, a Watford defence assembled for a grand total of around £7m did a mightily good job of shutting out a United front line which earns about one-fifth of that figure in weekly wages.

The centre-back partnership of Craig Cathcart and Nicolas Nkoulou was strong and assured and remained so even when the latter was forcibly replaced by Troost-Ekong in the second-half due to injury. Meanwhile, full-backs Kiko Femenia and Adam Masina didn't allow their eagerness in attack to hinder their defensive efforts, contributing well to the work of a back four which provided ample protection for Foster throughout.

Watford were equally impressive going forward, and it was Dennis who shone the brightest in that regard. The Nigerian was barnstorming all afternoon; his touch and cross from the byline to set up Joshua King's opener was an early manifestation of his ability, and he got another assist when he slipped through Pedro for the third before rounding off the scoring with a composedly emphatic finish after latching onto Foster's long kick.

Embed from Getty Images

Never has a goal been more deserved — Dennis was unplayable on the day, a player capped three times by Nigeria looking every bit the international superstar that he was supposed to be competing against.

King, for his part, was brilliant too. The former Red Devil was moved into a perhaps unfamiliar position on the left by Ranieri but still acted as the focal point for his side's attacks and occupied United's defence relentlessly. Furthermore, Ismaila Sarr displayed unquestionable mental fortitude by scoring having had two penalties saved by de Gea earlier in the match, and his unwavering determination to succeed summed up that of the entire Hornets front line in this match.

Watford's forwards won them the game, but the real battle was fought in the engine room, the midfield, and success here provided the foundations for the rest of their performance. Tom Cleverley and Moussa Sissoko pressed aggressively — it was the effervescence and intelligence of the former out of possession that got Harry Maguire sent off and ultimately swung momentum back in favour of the hosts — and Imran Louza sat deeper, using his range of passing to beat United's counter-press and get players involved on the ball whilst also acting as an added layer of protection for the defence.

Embed from Getty Images

Louza had struggled to get back into the side after a difficult debut at Brighton & Hove Albion in the second game of the campaign, but within 90 minutes he had emerged as a crucial cog in a Watford midfield which has been waiting to land upon the right combination all season long.

Yes, striking the right chord and balance in defence, midfield and attack has been a dilemma for Ranieri ever since his arrival, but the way in which the Hornets smothered United in every area of the pitch feels like one big leap towards solutions in that regard. Nkoulou and Sarr hobbled off injured in the second-half, so fingers will be crossed that the pair are able to return promptly — but regardless, the Italian has apparently stumbled upon a way to make his philosophy tick at Watford and he'll be hoping that remains the case whomever he selects in each position.

The Hornets announced their capabilities with the world watching on, but what has to come next is consistency. Watford have had games like this (not quite as impressive, perhaps, but similar) already this season, however victories over Aston Villa, Norwich City and Everton were not followed up by repeat performances, and that will have to change if they want to start making serious ground between themselves and the relegation zone.

Embed from Getty Images

It's not as if the fixture list gets any easier for Watford either, with Leicester City, Chelsea and Manchester City to face in their next three matches — but this victory has provided a welcome buffer which should relieve some pressure off the group and empower them to strive for more positive results.

Their next task is to prove that the remarkable display on a magical — and significant — afternoon at Vicarage Road was no fluke.

Over to you, Watford.

VAVEL Logo