As two of the Manchester United’s most garlanded goalscorers watched on, three of a younger generation offered hope for the future. Bobby Charlton and Denis Law, team-mates half a century ago, contributed 486 goals to United’s cause.
Bruno Fernandes’ first in his new club’s colours meant United got something that has eluded them this season: goals from midfield. Anthony Martial’s third in a week, each taken with admirable calm, suggested he is rising to the challenge of compensating for the absence of the injured Marcus Rashford. Mason Greenwood’s 11th of a brief United career indicated the teenager could end up rubbing shoulders with Charlton and Law on the all-time leaderboard.
Rather than the 1960s, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer harked back to his playing days for a comparison for the catalytic Fernandes, alighting on two talents who had contrasting United careers. “It is a bit of a mix between [Paul] Scholes and [Juan Sebastian] Veron,” he said.
“The temperament of Veron and a lot of the quality of Scholesy.” Fernandes’ arrival has brought a boost. “It means more than just getting a player in,” added Solskjaer. “The fans are used to players with that personality, mentality and quality.”
Fernandes cost £47 million (Dh223m) – “I think we got a good deal,” Solskjaer smiled – and will repay some of that if he propels them into the Champions League. They are fifth now. Watford are marooned in 19th and, after an initial revival under Nigel Pearson, have now gone six games without tasting victory.
We have to be responsible for our own future,” he said. “We didn’t take the chances we created early in the game.” Pearson’s first win came at United’s expense and the opening 40 minutes threatened a repeat. “The start we had was a shambles,” said Solskjaer. Then United were mediocre, David de Gea had to produce a fine save to deny Abdoulaye Doucoure and the forceful midfielder was the game’s dominant figure.
Thereafter Fernandes assumed that mantle. “This is the day every player wants to have,” he said. He played a part in all three goals and if his first for United came from the penalty spot, it was welcome nonetheless.
In Paul Pogba’s absence, United have had a vacuum, a void. “Now we have got the number ten nailed down,” said Solskjaer, which was bad news for Jesse Lingard and Andreas Pereira, who failed to even make the bench.
But they have had barren seasons. Fernandes arrived with 48 goals in 18 months for Sporting Lisbon. He forged a reputation as a spot-kick specialist there: a hop, a skip and a jump later, he showed why by fooling Ben Foster and nonchalantly rolling the ball past him.
He had won the penalty when he was upended by the former United goalkeeper Foster. It highlighted his ability to burst into the box from deep and came from a slide-rule pass from Daniel James. The winger still has not scored since August but excelled as a supplier in a vibrant display.
Fernandes showed signs of an embryonic understanding with Martial that bodes well. The Portuguese poked a shot wide when found by the Frenchman. When there was a role reversal, Fernandes released Martial and while Foster blocked his initial effort, the forward had the deftness and cheekiness to chip the goalkeeper with a sand wedge of a shot. “I am delighted with the week Anthony has had,” Solskjaer added. “The skill is just mind-blowing but I want more from him.”
Fernandes’ capacity to link up with new colleagues was apparent for the third. Fernandes played the lesser part in a one-two: Greenwood collected the ball in his own half, exchanged passes with Fernandes and unleashed an unstoppable shot. “He is the best finisher we have,” added Solskjaer.
There could have been a fourth. United’s other January signing, Odion Ighalo, almost opened his account against his former club, Adam Masina making a fine goal-line clearance. It was still a rare case of a game United won where they had the majority of the possession. Watford were caught on the counter-attack for the opener, had Troy Deeney’s equaliser chalked off via VAR for a Craig Dawson handball and departed defeated. “Frustrating day,” said Pearson. Not for Fernandes or United, though.