Manchester United claimed their third win of the season on Saturday afternoon and ended Watford’s 100% record with a 2-1 win at Vicarage Road.
After being written off following their defeats against Brighton and Tottenham Hotspur, when the team capitulated on the back of defensive errors, Jose Mourinho’s team showed plenty of character to keep Watford at bay to earn the well-deserved three points.
When Nemanja Matic was shown a red card late on and Javi Gracia’s men threw everyone forward, including former United goalkeeper Ben Foster, United were able to ride the storm and had David de Gea to thank on more than one occasion.
Yet the player named man of the match was Marouane Fellaini whose last two starts have seen United claim maximum points.
The midfielder is Mourinho’s go-to man and his performance against Watford showed why.
Used as extra defensive cover in front of United’s ever changing back four, Fellaini recovered possession more times than anyone on the pitch, no one won the ball more often in the air, and he was successful with more tackles than any of his teammates.
Yet it wasn’t just in United’s half where he proved useful, but in the opposition box too. United’s first goal was scored by Romelu Lukaku, with the Belgian overtaking his former mentor Didier Drogba’s Premier League goal tally in fewer games, with Fellaini playing a role in the build-up. He expertly controlled Ashley Young’s free kick with his chest to beat his marker, before his deflected cross landed at the feet of Young to get the ball into the striker to put United ahead.
The second goal, minutes later, started with a corner from Young to Fellaini, who had pulled away at the back post. His header to Chris Smalling saw the defender score a rare worldie, volleying the ball past Foster.
After the game, Rio Ferdinand in his role as a pundit was full of praise for Fellaini, and while the midfielder certainly had a good game, it wasn’t without error.
With the scoreline at 0-0, he clumsily lost possession in United’s box, which presented Troy Deeney with a great chance to give his team the lead. Thankfully, De Gea was equal to his attempt.
For Watford’s only goal of the game, Fellaini found himself ball watching as he retreated to form a backline level with United’s defenders, leaving goal scorer Andre Gray and Will Hughes totally unmarked. In the last minute of injury time, he was out jumped Christian Kabasele in the box, only for De Gea to make an excellent save again.
It’s these sort of mistakes that frustrate United supporters and while many can acknowledge he’s playing much better under Mourinho than he did his previous managers at the club, he’s a long way from being a world-class central midfielder.
That said, he is doing the job that Mourinho is asking of him and has had a positive impact on the last two wins for United.
“I felt that my central defenders need, especially in this moment of a bit of instability, they need somebody to support them and give them the first wall, physically,” Mourinho said after the game. “Marouane is giving us more than that, he is giving that but also quality and simplicity. He is playing simple and well. I’m really happy.”
Had United signed Toby Alderweireld or one of the other proven centre-halves on Mourinho’s shopping list this summer, maybe the need for a shield in front of the defence wouldn’t be as great.
As it is, with Mourinho having already tried out three different central partnerships in the five games United have played, the added protection of Fellaini has been important, even if he isn’t quite a full-proof as comments about him following the Watford game would suggest.
Fellaini is a means to an end at the moment and may well continue to be for as long as Mourinho is manager.
But United supporters are still looking forward to the day when the Belgian isn’t required to be a starting player for their club.
He’s not what the fans want in midfield but sadly, for now at least, he’s proving to be what they need.