Manchester United earned a smash-and-grab 2-1 victory over Watford at Vicarage Road on Saturday. They took the lead through Memphis early on, only to be pegged back from the penalty spot in second half stoppage time. The Hornets were good value for the point, though suffered the agony of conceding a stoppage time own goal to hand the visitors a last-gasp win.
United made a bright start to the match, with Memphis and Jesse Lingard's incessant movement causing headaches for the Watford defence. Van Gaal had surprisingly started United in what looked like a narrow 4-4-2, and early signs were promising.
Indeed, it only took United 11 minutes to break the deadlock, and it was one of the best goals of the season so far. An inch-perfect ball from Ander Herrera out on the right was caught sweetly on the volley by Memphis, whose effort sailed unstoppably into Heurelho Gomes' top corner.
Watford's only clear-cut chance to equalise came nine minutes later, when Ashley Young gifted his former club the ball deep in his own half. Some smart footwork from Odion Ighalo saw him wriggle free of Bastian Schweinsteiger in the box, though the Nigerian sliced the ball wide of David de Gea's near post.
United's early fun was marred by an injury to Herrera a few minutes later, with van Gaal throwing Marcos Rojo on in his place and switching to a back three. It was a depressingly conservative move that allowed Watford to apply a little more pressure, though save for a snapshot from Étienne Capoue that cleared the crossbar, they didn't threaten to equalise until the interval.
United should've gone two up within a couple of minutes of the restart, though after an excellent through-ball by Memphis, Lingard's shot was saved at the near post by Gomes. Watford could've made United rue their profligacy just short of the hour, though Troy Deeney's venomous effort from the edge of the box was beaten to safety by De Gea.
The game was alarmingly open, and de Gea was forced into another stunning save with 20 minutes left. A low shot from Almen Abdi took a nick off Chris Smalling, and only the Spaniard's outstretched hand prevented it from nestling in the bottom corner.
Chances at the other end were at a premium, though Lingard should've killed the game off with five minutes left. He took receipt of an inch-perfect Daley Blind ball over the top of Watford's defence, but chipped the ball tamely into the arms of Gomes. In many ways this was Lingard's most convincing performance yet: his movement was excellent and he linked well will Memphis, though it's clear his finishing needs a big improvement.
It was a costly miss from Lingard, as just seconds later Watford earned a penalty. Some clumsy defending from Rojo saw him wrestle Ighalo to the ground in the area, with Deeney finally beating de Gea with the ensuing spot-kick. In truth, it was a deserved equaliser, but that certainly didn't make us feel any better.
However, what followed certainly did. United threw the men and the ball forward, and in stoppage time were rewarded with the scrappiest of goals. A fine save by Gomes came out to Bastian Schweinsteiger, whose effort from a tight angle was turned in by Deeney, who turned from hero to zero in minutes.
United clung on for an exciting victory, but one that wasn't exciting for all the right reasons. Knowing his fondness for dominating possession, it's certainly not one that van Gaal will look back upon fondly.