Manchester United are into the fourth round courtesy of Scott McTominay’s early strike yet this was a stumbling outing, the high-paced game they like to play absent. Still, Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s team will not be concerned: in a hectic schedule it is solely about being in the hat for the draw and thoughts now turn to Tuesday’s trip to Burnley. Win or even take a point there and United arrive at Liverpool next Sunday as Premier League leaders – a position Solskjær may not have dreamed off at the season’s start.
Jesse Lingard was handed a second start of the season in a United XI that showed nine changes from the loss to Manchester City and which was captained for the first time by McTominay.
Xisco Munoz, meanwhile, arrived as the recently installed 13th manager of Watford since the Pozzo family took over in 2012, with the Spaniard having won his first game in charge before losing his second.
United’s familiar 4-2-3-1 purred at the start. Daniel James cut inside and forced a snap save from Daniel Bachmann. Alex Telles’s delivery from the resulting corner was met by McTominay, who headed into the ground. The ball bounced and spun away from Bachmann, going in off the left post to open the scoring after just five minutes. Moments later Mason Greenwood was fed a Lingard pass but the centre-forward scuffed his shot.
Poorer than that, though, was an errant ball from McTominay that went straight to Ismaïla Sarr and allowed Watford’s record signing to race towards goal. Only his own slipshod pass allowed United to recover.
The visitors were soon scrambling again when a cute Lingard chip found Donny van de Beek’s run, but the Dutchman was foiled by desperate Watford defending. United were in control yet were handed a warning when Will Hughes’s free-kick was flicked into an unmarked Adam Masina: his attempt had to be cleared from near Dean Henderson’s line by Axel Tuanzebe.
Eric Bailly should have doubled United’s lead when allowed a free header from another Telles corner but the Ivorian’s effort was weak. So, too, was Andre Gray’s attempt at the other end, although it at least showed the threat Watford carried. There was more when Sarr pinged in a cross from the right that evaded Henderson and which the debutant Philip Zinckernagel went close to capitalising on.
Watford were enjoying relative dominance and creating panic from United’s weakness: set-pieces. A Hughes corner could not be cleared and in the ensuing scramble Marc Navarro, Zinckernagel and Sarr all took aim, the latter’s shot hitting Bailly’s hand though no penalty was awarded.
Next came a Nathaniel Chalobah shot that had occurred due to James’s clumsy touch (an unwanted leitmotif of the winger’s game). As the interval neared, though, United sparked via a sweet move as Greenwood found Van de Beek, whose backheel then slid in Juan Mata. From close range, the Spaniard should have beaten Bachmann.
An injury to Bailly, who took an inadvertent Henderson knee, meant Harry Maguire replaced him just before half-time.
A 20-yard shot from Watford’s João Pedro was the second half’s first act. It went wide but here, again, the Championship side displayed teeth. James offered a riposte with a curler that forced a low Bachmann save yet the tie remained poised despite United’s lead, and the way Watford carried out Munoz’s demand for a high press signalled they fancied drawing level. Their belief was evident, too, in the way both Navarro then Sarr tried crosses: the latter’s landed on Gray’s willing head, and Henderson was relieved to collect.
United were unable to keep Watford at arm’s length, a sliced clearance from Henderson that went lateral and out for a throw-in indicative of how they were losing their way. When they won a rare corner Mata flipped the ball to Greenwood, who had peeled away from the six-yard box, but his shot lacked venom. United were lacking bite, and so Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial were called upon in place of James and Greenwood.
Watford’s answer was to claim to two corners. The second – fired in by Ken Sema – was headed out by Rashford. Then Telles pushed over Pedro down the right, Sema’s free-kick was too high, yet United were holding on. A final scare came from a late corner but Maguire headed clear.