This time there was to be no rescue act, no papering over of the cracks. Deploy any pejorative you wish and it would probably fit: Manchester United were dire, derelict, dreadful and, by the end, thoroughly demeaned. That is hardly a novel outcome on recent evidence and it proved the final straw for the club’s board. A sizeable number of the away support made their own opinions clear at the end, booing Ole Gunnar Solskjær when he fronted up to applaud their backing; at the time it seemed an ominous shift in sentiment and, within hours, the manager’s fate would rest entirely on the say-so of co-chairman Joel Glazer.
In an increasingly crowded field, this was a brand new low for modern-day United. They were fortunate to only concede four: Watford, whose fine performance must not be airbrushed, met their endemic sloppiness head on and exposed them repeatedly, particularly in a first half in which the one-sidedness beggared belief. “Nightmare after nightmare after nightmare,” David de Gea called it: his meaning was clear but this was yet another vividly lived experience and no trick of the imagination.
It had been tempting to predict a different kind of repeat display when Donny van de Beek, for whom United’s fans had loudly called for during the opening period, scored his first club goal in 16 months within minutes of being introduced at half-time. That halved the deficit and, for a while, the occasion seemed primed for another of the stirring but unsustainable comebacks that allow another week’s callbacks to the spirit of 99. Van de Beek, with the bit between his teeth, then played Cristiano Ronaldo through only for Ben Foster to deflect over with his shoulder. The high watermark had been reached: Foster’s save was bookended by an embarrassment of the highest order.
Injury-time goals by João Pedro and Emmanuel Dennis ensured Watford had a margin of victory that was the least they deserved, but the seeds had been sown much earlier. Within six minutes of the start, Bruno Fernandes miscued an attempted crossfield volley so bizarrely that Josh King was sent through. King was brought down by Scott McTominay, who would be hauled off after an abysmal first half, and Jon Moss called play back for a penalty after Dennis failed to convert the loose ball.
The entire chaotic sequence had seemed of a piece with United’s season. They could have wrested themselves off the hook from there but the rot had set in: Maguire bailed out teammates with two goal-saving challenges and, with Watford’s pace and energy several notches higher than United could tolerate, there was little surprise when King breached them before the half-hour.
Nor were any eyebrows raised at the fact a defensive mistake lay at the opener’s heart. Aaron Wan-Bissaka should have dealt with a routine Femenía delivery to the far post but looped an inadequate header towards Dennis. The forward, a menace all afternoon, fizzed across a low centre that King swept under De Gea.