It may still be the case that Manchester United have only lost once since the 4-1 defeat at Vicarage Road which led to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s sacking last November and Ralf Rangnick’s subsequent appointment on an interim basis, but draws like this are slowly eroding hope of playing in next season’s Champions League.
Solskjaer’s conquerors Watford, under new management themselves, will celebrate this goalless draw at Old Trafford as one of the highlights of their season, even if the point does little to help Roy Hodgson’s side in their battle against the drop. For United, it was yet another afternoon when they had their chances but did not take them.
United remain fourth, two points clear of fifth-place Arsenal, but have played three games more. This was the fifth draw in 13 league games under Rangnick, the sixth time they have failed to win, and worryingly, this visit from a side second-bottom in the Premier League table could be viewed as the last fixture in a favourable run dating all the way back to his arrival.
After next week’s derby at the Etihad, top-four rivals Tottenham pay a visit with the return leg against Atletico Madrid following three days later. Even if the subsequent trip to Anfield is postponed due to the FA Cup quarter-finals, as seems likely, Rangnick is entering a period that could define his interim spell and what he leaves for his successor.
Of all the issues, Cristiano Ronaldo’s form is especially concerning. The Portuguese looked every inch the 37-year-old centre-forward that he is and may be contemplating whether he can stomach a season outside of European football’s elite competition. But if he decides not, judging by this performance, that may be best for all concerned.
Rangnick rang the changes from the midweek draw in Madrid for this third game in the space of six days, sacrificing four regulars, all of them England internationals. Form did not appear to be a consideration, with player of the month Jadon Sancho benched alongside Harry Maguire, Luke Shaw and Marcus Rashford.
Hodgson was hoping for a third consecutive win at Old Trafford following back-to-back victories in each of the last two seasons. But Watford are inferior to those Crystal Palace sides and only just survived a first half that was a familiar tale for Rangnick’s United: an abundance of chances and all of them spurned.
Ronaldo turned and trickled a shot against the base of the upright within five minutes when given too much space inside the Watford penalty area. It was a presentable chance, though not half as presentable as the one that followed for Fernandes, who was slipped through one-on-one with Ben Foster but placed his finish well within the goalkeeper’s reach.
That chance was fashioned by the incisive running and quick thinking of Elanga, the saviour of Madrid, and the teenager was United’s best player during those opening stages. Another probing run from right to left set up Alex Telles to cross and Ronaldo to finish past Foster, though he had leaned marginally offside in the build-up.
Fernandes then poked a Pogba cross wide from only a few yards out, having slipped past Watford’s defensive line to leave himself unmarked and with all the time in the world. United should have been four up inside the opening half-hour and instead were still level. And according to the usual script, their impressive start would now tail off. And so it did.
United were still the protagonists, dominating possession and creating the bulk of chances, but no longer moved through Hodgson’s two banks of four with ease. Watford had sat off their hosts rather than press, offering them the time and space to pick their passes, but this determination to sit deep and hold shape was beginning to pay off.
Elanga was still finding space. A brilliantly worked move at the start of the second half again started with him cutting in from the right to the left, latching onto to Fred’s through ball via a majestic flick by Paul Pogba, but the 19-year-old’s finish was wayward and wide. If only others in United’s attack could move so easily.
Ronaldo was becoming especially frustrated. The Portuguese had already seen a penalty appeal go unheeded, despite a clumsy challenge by Hassane Kamara. When he scuffed his connection on one Fernandes cross, meeting it with his chest rather than his head, you knew it would not be his day.
He stayed on, however, even as Rangnick called for the cavalry. Rashford and Sancho joined Ronaldo, Fernandes, Elanga and Pogba in United’s increasingly desperate attacks but did not create a chance of note. The closest either side came to breaking the deadlock was with the last meaningful kick and it was by a Watford player.
If Ismaila Sarr’s speculative attempt in the third minute of stoppage time had flown a couple of inches lower, then United would have suffered defeat. Instead, this goalless draw just feels like one.