Fernandes, Man United are building momentum in top-four race with easy win vs. Watford
MANCHESTER, England -- Manchester United's ups and downs this season have been enough to induce motion sickness, but there are signs that maybe, just maybe, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has found a remedy. The Norwegian watched his team brush Watford aside with a 3-0 win at Old Trafford on Sunday and while the performance was impressive, the biggest positive was what it means for the bigger picture.
United built on victory at Chelsea by winning back-to-back Premier League games for just the third time this season, stretching their unbeaten run in all competitions to six and keeping the top four in sight. Bruno Fernandes, the orchestrator, scored his first United goal and made the other two, while at the other end, the defence kept a third consecutive clean sheet in the league for the first time in a year.
With Fernandes and Odion Ighalo added in January and Scott McTominay back from injury, the squad is not looking quite so stretched. Jesse Lingard and Andreas Pereira weren't even needed on Sunday, watching the action from the stands. United were even on the right end of a contentious VAR decision when Troy Deeney had an equaliser chalked off when Andre Marriner decided Craig Dawson had handled in the build-up to the goal. (Anthony Martial made it 2-0 mere minutes after Watford's disallowed goal.)
Things are, finally, looking up.
"It was a very good win," Solskjaer said. "Two good wins and two clean sheets, some goals to celebrate, now we want to kick on."
A trip to Everton at Goodison Park on Sunday gives United the chance to win three league games in a row for the first time since January 2019.
This Sunday, however, the United boss might have feared the worst just a minute after kick-off. Victor Lindelof attempted to find Aaron Wan-Bissaka with a simple 5-yard pass and succeeded only in hitting Anthony Taylor, the fourth official, who was minding his own business in front of the dugouts. Inside the opening five minutes, Nemanja Matic and Harry Maguire tripped over themselves and gifted a chance to Deeney. Even MUTV, who always try to find the positives, could only describe the defending as "all over the place."
Afterwards, Solskjaer labelled United's start "a shambles." Fortunately for him, they gradually improved, and after Wan-Bissaka, Martial, Daniel James and Fred had all missed chances of varying degrees of difficulty, Fernandes won and scored a penalty to register his first goal since his £47 million move from Sporting Lisbon. His run-up included a skip and the goal -- United's first in the league at Old Trafford since Jan. 11 -- meant Solskjaer went down the tunnel at half-time with a spring in his step.
Fernandes has introduced some much-needed creativity to the midfield and may have also solved the problems from the penalty spot. United have failed with four of the nine penalties awarded to them this season, but Fernandes has not missed one for nearly four years. It was also the Portugal midfielder who picked up the ball to slide in Martial to score United's second. The Frenchman's finish, conjured while three Watford defenders and Foster descended on him, was exquisite, but the goal was created by Fernandes' vision.
"[Fernandes] has come in and done really well and given everyone a boost," Solskjaer said. "It means more than just getting a player in. The fans are used to players with that personality, mentality and quality. He has come in from day one and felt like a presence in the group from the first minute, demanding the ball. Some players take some time in warming up, but he has felt confident right away.
"[He is] a bit of a mix between [Paul] Scholes and [Juan Sebastian] Veron -- the temperament of Veron and a lot of the quality of Scholesy."
Fernandes got the assist for Mason Greenwood's goal, too, but that was more about the teenager's clinical finish in finding the top corner with his left foot after an incisive counter-attack.
When United thrashed Chelsea on the opening weekend of the season, it was followed by a draw at Wolves. Victory over Leicester in September came a week before a dire defeat at West Ham. After beating Manchester City in December, it was a draw with Everton. This time it was different as United endured that momentum built by the 2-0 win at Chelsea on Monday was not squandered.
"We need to get that consistency," Brandon Williams had said before the match. "A few teams around the position that we're in are all playing each other this weekend, so hopefully we can get the three points and capitalise on getting to fourth spot."
For a change, United backed up the talk.