Man United's control doesn't lead to goals vs. Watford as their grip on top four weakens

MANCHESTER, England -- Manchester United ended their game against Watford on Saturday with Cristiano Ronaldo, Bruno Fernandes, Paul Pogba, Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Anthony Elanga on the pitch and still couldn't find a goal.

The 0-0 draw at Old Trafford dented their hopes of a top-four finish, particularly ahead of a run of league games against Manchester City, Tottenham and Liverpool in the next three weeks. United manager Ralf Rangnick was left to answer questions about how his team had managed to have 22 shots at goal and hit the target only three times, but it was one of those occasions when it was nothing to do with him.

- Report: Man United rue missed chances in draw vs. Watford

United played well from start to finish, but Ronaldo, Fernandes and Elanga all missed golden chances. Ronaldo squandered the best after just five minutes when he twisted in the penalty area and hit the post when he should have scored. Over the 85 minutes that followed, the Portuguese forward -- a scorer of more than 800 goals during a remarkable career -- looked like a shadow of the player United supporters hoped had arrived from Juventus last summer. It's now one goal in 10 for the 37-year-old.

"It feels once again like two points dropped we should have easily won," said Rangnick afterward. "We did everything apart from scoring, we had enough chances in both halves to win that game, but we didn't and, not for the first time, we dropped two points in a very important game."

The last time United played Watford, they lost 4-1 at Vicarage Road and it cost Ole Gunnar Solskjaer his job. There have been changes since under Rangnick's guidance, but while they are more organised and better defensively, scoring goals is a problem.

In 17 games under the 63-year-old German manager, United have scored two or more just five times. They needed only one against Watford, but after 93 minutes of wasted chances, Ben Foster, at 38 years and 329 days, had become the oldest visiting goalkeeper to keep a clean sheet at Old Trafford. For context, Watford, 19th in the table, have the third-worst defensive record in the league behind only Leeds United and Norwich, and on Wednesday, they were soundly beaten 4-1 at home by Crystal Palace.

"We had enough chances. In the first half we had four clear opportunities that normally are enough to score at least one or two goals, and second-half was similar," added Rangnick. "In the end it's about efficiency, being clinical in front of goal, and this is not for the first time, unfortunately.

"Apart from that we were in full control of the game, we dominated the game. In the last five minutes, they had one or two transitional moments, and apart from that we dominated the game completely."

The frustration for Rangnick will be that there was lots to like about United's performance, but without a goal, it means little. He wants his teams to control games, and he got that on Saturday. He likes clean sheets and got that too: This is the first time United have kept consecutive home clean sheets in the league since 2020. Rangnick remains convinced his football is attacking enough to win games, and it was telling afterward that he appeared to place the blame for the result against Watford at the feet of the players rather than a failure of the game plan.

"Our job as coaches and head coaches is to help the team create enough chances," said Rangnick pointedly. "If we only had two or three opportunities in the game, we could ask ourselves what can we do to create more, but the number of clear chances we had today have to be enough to win a game like this."

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United should have been home and hosed after just 20 minutes. After Ronaldo hit the post with the best chance of the game early on, Fernandes had a shot saved by Foster after being played in by Elanga, and Ronaldo had a goal ruled out for offside and Fernandes prodded wide after a inviting cross from the left by Pogba.

Watford manager Roy Hodgson, twice a winner at Old Trafford as manager of Crystal Palace, said damningly that the way his team had defended "was not rocket science."

It says everything about the form of United's attacking players that 19-year-old Elanga was their best player by a distance, and if a few others had shown the youngster's movement and urgency, Rangnick may well have ended the afternoon talking about a vital victory in the race for Champions League football. Instead, the interim coach would be forgiven for looking nervously at the fixture list.

United play Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium next weekend before a home game against Tottenham on March 12 and a trip to Anfield to face Liverpool on Mar. 20. Rangnick's team sit fourth although Arsenal, two points behind, and with three games in hand, will feel it's in their hands. United cannot afford many more missed opportunities.