United don't have to be boring: 5 things from Watford 1-2 Man United
1) United's wingless wonders were better out wide
Manchester United started this game at Watford like the Brazilian team of 1982. Safe in the knowledge that Paolo Rossi was unlikely to turn up and net a hat-trick against them, United began in an unusual 4-2-2-2 formation, forced upon them by the absence of Anthony Martial and Wayne Rooney.
Memphis Depay and Jesse Lingard shared the load up front, with Ander Herrera and Juan Mata playing in behind them. True, Herrera and Mata may not quite be on the same level as Socrates and Zico, and United's approach was not quite as naively cavalier as the 4-2-2-2 of that famous Brazilian World Cup side of 33 years ago, but it worked as they got on top early in the game and took the lead through Depay's volley.
Both formations were a departure from the 4-2-3-1 they have generally preferred in recent times, and it appeared to give them more purpose in attack, showing they can be a little more entertaining than they have been on some occasions recently - and still win.
Before this game they'd attempted only 85 shots in 12 games this season, excluding blocked shots, at just over 7 attempts per match. Sunderland were the only Premier League side who had attempted less. The figure was as low as 3 in their last away match at Crystal Palace but in this game they had 13 attempts, of which 2 were blocked.
With two livewires up front, United's tempo was higher and they were less prone to tedious passing without any real purpose in midfield - something that was particularly noticeable in the 0-0 draw at Selhurst Park. In total they completed 377 passes against Watford, only two more than at Palace, but 122 of them were in the attacking third compared to just 87 against the Eagles.
Perhaps most intriguingly, despite doing away with wingers at Vicarage Road they were also more effective out wide - completing 8 crosses, compared to 3 in each of their past two Premier League matches, when the likes of Anthony Martial and Juan Mata preferred to cut inside rather than look to put the ball into the box. Both of United's goals against Watford came from crosses in some way, with Depay's goal from a particularly impressive centre from Herrera.
United had been accused of being dull to watch in their previous 4-2-3-1 system, although Van Gaal did point out that his side kept possession better in that formation. Their pass completion rate at Watford was 76.3%, compared to 83.3% and 82.2% in their previous two league matches.
"But we created a lot of chances and we could have finished the game much earlier. We only trained once in that system and also we changed during the match to three defenders, the system we played for three or four months last season.
2) Memphis flourishes up front
Manchester United's number seven shirt has been worn by some pretty special players in the past, with away fans taking the opportunity to sing about Eric Cantona during the pre-match rendition of La Marseillaise. Memphis Depay has struggled to impress in quite the same way since arriving in England but was recalled to the starting line-up at Vicarage Road with Martial and Rooney unavailable.
He produced a fine finish for his goal and in total managed an impressive 4 attempts, as well as creating a chance that Lingard might have done better with. He also occasionally drifted back to the left to attempt 4 crosses, and completed 19 passes in the attacking third - a total only equalled by Juan Mata. His pressing without the ball was good too, as Watford boss Quique Sanchez Flores noted afterwards.
3) United fare better without Rooney
Wayne Rooney missed this game because of illness but Manchester United have actually done better without him in recent times, perhaps a sign of his waning influence at Old Trafford. United have taken 81 points from the last 43 league games that Rooney has featured in, at 1.88 points per game. Without him, they have won 5, drawn 4 and lost none (2.11 points per game).
4) Young and Blind played crucial roles
Playing without wingers put greater emphasis on United's full backs, or wing backs as Ashley Young and Daley Blind became following the introduction of third centre back Marcos Rojo.
Young attempted 6 take-ons, even if only 2 were successful, while he also fared well in the ball recoveries stats with 12. Only Morgan Schneiderlin (13) completed more, while Blind wasn't far behind with 11.
5) Ake improved things for Watford
Quique Sanchez Flores admitted he was not happy with his side's first half performance, and they completed only 62.4% of their passes before the interval. But he was much happier with how they fared after he introduced Nathan Ake at half time for Jose Manuel Jurado. Ake came on at left back with Ikechi Anya moving to the wing, and Watford were the better side for a period, having 7 shots to United's 6 before half time and their equaliser.
Despite only coming on at half time, left out after being away on international duty with the Dutch under-21s last week, on-loan Chelsea man Ake completed more tackles in the game than anyone, winning 6 out of 6.