After a dour start this became the Anthony Martial and Bruno Fernandes show. Each have the quality Manchester United require if a challenge for a Champions League berth is to be mounted, this win lifting them two places up to fifth in this quest.
Both scored while showing their team-mates how to turn a contest United’s way. In the closing stages Mason Greenwood caught on, starting and finishing a move for an 11th of the 18-year-old’s breakthrough season, the final pass to him coming – inevitably – from Fernandes.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær had changed two from last Monday’s win at Chelsea: Victor Lindelöf replaced Eric Bailly and Greenwood came in for Brandon Williams, the manager deciding against handing Odion Ighalo a first United start against his former club. Nigel Pearson’s only adjustment from a draw at Brighton 15 days ago was the manager’s preference for Craig Dawson instead of Adrian Mariappa.
The contest nearly began badly for United when Nemanja Matic and Harry Maguire dithered allowing Troy Deeney a sight of David De Gea’s goal but he muffed the chance.
At the other end Greenwood made a threatening run, scattering yellow shirts before him, and used the space to shoot but his effort was straight at Ben Foster.
United can be flaky in defence because of the gap between the rearguard and midfield and, sensing this, Roberto Pereyra skated forward and found Gerard Deulofeu to the left, he passed to the unmarked Abdoulaye Doucouré and the home team were lucky he could not finish.
Profligacy was becoming a theme. The next to show a blunt edge was Aaron Wan-Bissaka. This time the chance came when Daniel James’s cross was parried to the right-back’s feet but he shot into the side netting.
United and Watford were staging a bits-and-pieces contest that lacked a touch of class where it mattered. Martial certainly possesses it but even he wildly ballooned a 25-yard effort. At least, though, the build-up impressed: a Maguire challenge taking the ball near his area, Fred then being fed and racing over halfway, before Martial became involved.
At the 30-minute mark a collector’s item was offered up: a curving Doucouré attempt that would actually have registered if De Gea had not flung himself right to save. James and Fred then added to the number of spurned opportunities: both firing over the bar.
Now, though, came a breakthrough via a slick James ball that slipped in Fernandes. The Portuguese swerved around Foster and when the keeper brought him down the referee, Martin Atkinson, awarded the penalty.
Fernandes took this and did so with a swagger United have missed in recent years: an odd-looking hop straight up in the air sent Foster to his right before he slotted his first goal for United. As the break approached he could and should have had a second but spooned wide Martial’s pass.
Still that was Fernandes 13th straight penalty converted in top-flight football and set United up neatly for the second half. Yet when Luke Shaw conceded a corner disaster came close to striking when it was delivered from the right and Deeney bundled home. Yet as at Chelsea (twice) VAR saved United: Craig Dawson was adjudged – correctly – to have elbowed the ball on to the left post before his captain’s finish.
If this caused inevitable glee from United fans, the emotion was nearly superseded by jubilation when James – in his finest display for a while – played Greenwood in. The teenager’s pivot-and-pass across Foster’s goal was inviting and Adam Masina was relieved to clear.
Witnessed next, though, was a Martial special. As at Chelsea and Bruges on Thursday when scoring the centre-forward had been quiet before waking to show his killer instinct. Fernandes was the craftsman, threading the ball through, and Martial the artist. When Foster blocked his initial shot the 23-year-old was in a cul-de-sac manned primarily by Étienne Capoue. Yet Martial performed a drag-back that left Watford player a spectator before, from under Foster’s nose, he chipped his third goal from three games in the last seven days.
If he trusted his left foot he might have hit Fernandes’s free-kick seconds later for a third but he does not. Maguire, too, was gifted a golden chance – again from Fernandes – with a clear header but fluffed his big moment.
This was only the third time United have claimed consecutive league wins this season, Greenwood’s emphatic strike, pin-balling off the frame, sending United and their fans home even more content.