Watford welcome Manchester United to Vicarage Road as the Premier League returns hitting its stride between now and a new calendar year.
United sit sixth in the table after 11 games, one league win in five, nine points off leaders Chelsea and equal distance to the relegation places. Watford, meanwhile, are hovering above the drop zone and, with a porous defence, should be ripe for the picking given United’s attacking options.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær will have had time to reflect on a bruising run of defeats before the international break while wondering whether he will still be in charge when commitments resume.
#mufc are insisting to several agents who have proposed alternatives to Solskjær that they take a “long-term” view and current circumstances are a first real blip in his three years as manager of the club #mulive [@lauriewhitwell]— utdreport (@utdreport) November 18, 2021
Some sources believe background checks on managers are taking place but #mufc will not yet enter into genuine talks out of respect to Solskjær and because of the damage that any leaks could cause #mulive [@lauriewhitwell]— utdreport (@utdreport) November 18, 2021
The club have not publicly backed the manager and remain disingenuously quiet while scrabbling around for a way forward. Little has changed since October and there is a criminal lack of direction from the board. This gutless approach from United’s hierarchy does not serve anyone well and if there is genuine intention and appetite to retain Solskjær until the end of the season – for whatever means – they should be declaring it loudly to give the manager the support he desperately needs, and the focus the squad critically requires now. As it stands, none of that is happening and United’s current struggles under Solskjær continue to fester while the board let the situation play out.
The fixtures between now and the new year are relentless, offering rapid opportunity for improvement or further depths to be plumbed, but Solskjær and United can’t look too far forward. After Watford on Saturday afternoon, United travel to Spain for a massive penultimate Champions League group game against Villarreal on Tuesday. United and Villarreal top the group with identical results and United must take points off the struggling Spanish side to retain control of qualification when they host Young Boys at Old Trafford next month. The financial impact of not qualifying for the knockout stages will be severe but, worse, the missed opportunity considering the charitable draw United could fluff.
Solskjær has made a rod for his own back not using his squad fully and relying on underperforming regulars. Moving to a back three recently, in a futile attempt to stop the rot of shocking displays and to cope in matches with their bitter rivals, has further limited chances for United’s wealth of attacking players. Against Watford, Solskjær has the opportunity and should take the initiative to reintroduce a front three while he can. Raphaël Varane’s setback with a hamstring strain keeping the otherwise reliable centre-back out until December should not deter a return to a back four even with concerns over Harry Maguire’s form. As problematic as United’s defence is, central midfield, and finding the right balance there, will be key to success in the next two games.
While David de Gea is sure to retain his place at Watford, United may look to Dean Henderson sooner rather than later to solidify a jittery defence. De Gea’s shot-stopping heroics have kept United in games or scorelines down but a more dominant penalty area presence in Henderson, than just the goal line De Gea roots himself to, could benefit United more in controlling matches as shown last season.
With Varane injured and Victor Lindelöf’s torrid time for Sweden, Solskjær will be hoping Harry Maguire’s much-needed respite with England serves him well for United, and his captain is modestly celebrating a clean sheet at full-time in London.
An international break invariably follows with Nemanja Matić in United’s starting line-up soon after as the Serbian recuperates sufficiently during the break to provide able cover in defensive midfield. Fred impressed again for Brazil but his schedule and travel likely rule him out for Saturday.
Donny van de Beek
Paul Pogba is still suspended and Scott McTominay may get the nod for one of the two central midfield spots if McTominay has fully recovered from illness. More likely is that Fred and McTominay will start on Tuesday which may leave an opening for the lesser spotted Donny van de Beek.
With Matić or McTominay, Van de Beek could pick up where he left off in United’s opening Champions League game defeat to Young Boys. Van de Beek, with Fred, was having a tidy match dictating the play in midfield – with surprising aggression – before being substituted at half-time entirely due to Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s red card. Pogba may not walk back into the side when eligible and Solskjær could do worse than give Van de Beek a chance to inject some creativity where United need it most.
Solskjær must get Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho involved on Saturday either side of Ronaldo or Mason Greenwood. Greenwood, Rashford and Sancho have all benefited from staying with their club over the past fortnight and should have enough between them to do damage to Watford. Not prioritising Sancho, in particular, this weekend would be a wasted opportunity before trickier encounters lie in wait.