There are times when it has seemed Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is writing his own script. It felt inevitable that his first game as Manchester United’s permanent manager brought victory.
It seemed unsurprising that a triumph of Solskjaer’s selection and coaching, Marcus Rashford, broke the deadlock and, given much the Norwegian has touched has turned into goals, that Anthony Martial’s second came after a combination involving United’s first two substitutes.
It highlighted Solskjaer’s impact that, after inheriting a team 11 points off the top four in December, United now find themselves in the Uefa Champions League places and below Tottenham Hotspur only on goal difference.
“We are almost in the driving seat,” Solskjaer said. Yet if, after back-to-back defeats, victory felt crucial, it was also unconvincing. There was a narrative of the catalytic coach flourishing and a game where United often floundered.
“Everyone knows we can perform better,” said Solskjaer. A blunter Luke Shaw stated: “We were awful in the second half.”
Watford weren’t. “It is difficult to explain,” said the beaten manager Javi Gracia. “We had more shots, more shots on target, more corner kicks but when you don’t score, you get killed.”
Few have 20 efforts, or eight on target, as Watford did. They only scored, belatedly but stylishly, with a surge and dink from Abdoulaye Doucoure.
If it showed a wastefulness by Watford, who suffered a 14th successive league defeat away at big-six sides, this also highlighted David de Gea’s enduring excellence, a reason why many a scoreline in a United game in recent years has not reflected the game itself, and indicated the fault-lines in Solskjaer’s squad, ones which he has done an admirable job of camouflaging.
United afforded Watford too much room in front of their defence, which is another way of saying that Solskjaer’s midfield underperformed. It was a reminder that rebuilding is still required. Appointing a manager is only a start.
That manager was granted a predictably enthusiastic reception. A huge banner reading “20Legend”, the last number and first two letters doubling up as “Ole”, was passed along the Stretford End. A chorus of Solskjaer’s first name followed the first goal.
Rashford has been a symbolic figure for him. Jose Mourinho was reluctant to use the local as a striker. Solskjaer began by installing him as his first-choice centre-forward. The Mancunian had got the first goal of the Norwegian’s caretaker regime; now he added the first of his permanent reign.
It came in typical fashion. Solskjaer’s success has stemmed in part from blistering counter-attacking. There were plenty of examples of Rashford’s capacity to spring offside traps.
The most significant came when Shaw won the ball on the edge of his own box, advanced and bisected the Watford defence with a curling pass; the sort that Juan Mata supplies more often.
“Luke has got so much in his locker,” Solskjaer added. “He is exceptional going forward and I can’t wait to see him blossom.”
Rashford was the beneficiary of the left-back’s creativity and slotted his shot past Ben Foster. “Rashy was fantastic,” Solskjaer said. “He gave us the energy the others lacked.
Foster made a brilliant save from Martial, but was culpable when the Frenchman struck. The former United goalkeeper spilled the replacement Jesse Lingard’s cross after he had linked up with Andreas Pereira. Their introduction nevertheless counted as another influential move by Solskjaer.
Yet Watford’s performance showed the progress made under Gracia. They began with intent and assurance. Troy Deeney had three chances in the first 12 minutes alone, with a diving De Gea needed to claw away a header.
The elusive Gerard Deulofeu and the gifted Roberto Pereyra found space. Doucoure was the game’s dominant midfielder. By the end, Solskjaer was bringing on a defender, Marcos Rojo, and changing tactics to try and hold on.
“The two centre-backs and Luke Shaw were excellent,” added Solskjaer. United were not, but as their manager said: “Three points; you can’t get more.”