Ole Gunnar Solskjaer got his permanent reign as Manchester United manager off to a winning start against Watford, but his side were far from their fluent best.
The victory was harsh on Watford, who dominated possession for long periods and had superior chances, but the win lifts United into fourth place above Arsenal, who play on Monday.
Despite early Watford pressure, Marcus Rashford’s 10th Premier League goal of the season, after a superb through ball from Luke Shaw, gave United a flattering lead.
And as the visitors wasted further opportunities to earn their first league win at Old Trafford, Anthony Martial made them pay midway through the second half with a close-range finish.
Abdoulaye Doucoure scored a late goal for the visitors to fray a few more of the home fans’ nerves.
But the victory for Solskjaer, who was appointed on a three-year-deal this week, ended successive defeats, and took them level on points with third-placed Tottenham, who travel to Liverpool on Sunday.
United struggle as new Solskjaer era begins
After being appointed on Thursday, having lost only one of his 13 Premier League games in charge since taking over from Jose Mourinho in December, Solskjaer asked his side to work harder and warned against complacency.
However, there was a tiredness to their play throughout, which, but for Watford’s wastefulness, would have been punished. Paul Pogba also lacked his usual influence.
Whether it was because of the international break or down to Solskjaer’s new status, it was difficult to say. Far from being a party atmosphere inside Old Trafford as Ole continued ‘at the wheel’, there were times during the game when the wheels almost came off.
The visitors had 16 shots to United’s six, with eight of them on target, yet they were often tame efforts. Doucoure could easily have given Watford the lead early on but fired wide from 10 yards.
Troy Deeney might also have had a case for a penalty when he was charged in the box by Phil Jones.
For all United’s failings, though, Rashford’s well-taken goal and Martial’s bundled effort, which Watford thought was offside, helped grind out a much-needed victory to keep United’s Champions League hopes on track.
Their goals also ensure United have four goalscorers in double figures in the league for the first time since the 1995-96 season.
Watford suffer from poor finishing
Watford boss Javi Gracia will be hugely encouraged by his team’s performance, as they began both halves on top and showed they are good value for reaching the top 10 in the Premier League and an FA Cup semi-final.
Gerard Deulofeu, who had his black tights cut off early in the first half because they didn’t match Watford’s green away kit, was a constant threat on the left, while Deeney gave Jones and Chris Smalling a busy afternoon in defence.
Yet every time they fashioned a chance, they could not beat David de Gea or skewed off-target – until Doucoure’s well-worked late consolation goal.
Not only did Watford miss out on a chance to win at Old Trafford for a first time, victory would also have meant they would have eclipsed their club Premier League record of 45 points, set in 2015-16.
But there were plenty of positives as Doucoure and Etienne Capoue bossed midfield, in addition to the threat down the flanks.
The Hornets face Fulham on Tuesday before their FA Cup tie against Wolves on 7 April, and this result will not dishearten them as they aim to reach an FA Cup final for the first time since 1984.
Analysis from Old Trafford by Simon Stone
There was a nod to Solskjaer’s appointment as manager before kick-off with a brief blast of the Stone Roses’ ‘Waterfall’ from which United fans have derived their ‘Ole’s at the wheel’ song.
But in truth, there was not much different at Old Trafford today.
United fans have been singing Solskjaer songs since his appointment as caretaker boss in December and will probably continue to do so after the Norwegian leaves, whenever that is.
What Solskjaer’s hero status will not do is shield him from the need to win football matches.
There were no complaints of him whatsoever but as the hosts laboured in the opening stages and gifted Watford possession on far too many occasions for comfort, there was frustration in the stands. And that became anxiety as Watford were presented with their chance to snatch a point in added time.
It’s a fair bet that, by the time United next play here, against Barcelona in the Champions League on 10 April, the souvenir sellers will have got their act together and got themselves some Solskjaer manager-related material to sell.
But for this appointment to work in the long term, Solskjaer needs to build a winning United team. And for that to happen against better teams than Watford and in the long term, he is probably going to need new players in the summer.