Watford finished the season 14th in the Premier League after they were unable to end their long search for an away goal and point in a 1-0 defeat at Manchester United.

The game had few chances of note but United were to make the most of a defensive lapse when Juan Mata was allowed to run in behind to latch on to a Michael Carrick long pass and the Spaniard squared for Marcus Rashford to tap home.

But Watford would have been level before the interval had it not been for an excellent save from Sergio Romero, who reacted superbly to dive to his left and keep out a close-range header from Richarlison.

That was as close as the Hornets were to get as their dismal second half to the campaign on the road ended in an eighth away league game without a goal and 818 minutes playing time in all competitions, with their run extended to just a single point from the last 12 top-flight away matches.

But amid the disappointment, there was one significant individual positive for the Hornets with the return to action for Nathaniel Chalobah as a second-half substitute following his long injury lay-off.

Javi Gracia made three changes to the side which passed the 40-point mark with a 2-1 victory over Newcastle United last time out.

Etienne Capoue had already been ruled out for personal reasons and he was joined by Orestis Karnezis while, perhaps surprisingly, Troy Deeney dropped to the bench.

Their places were taken by Heurelho Gomes, who made his 100th Premier League start, Richarlison and Gerard Deulofeu and there was more good news on the bench as Chalobah made his return to a match-day 18 after eight months out through injury.

It was virtually all change for the hosts with only Scott McTominay and Alexis Sanchez retaining their place in the starting XI from the team which started Thursday’s 0-0 draw at West Ham United. However, one player conspicuous by his absence from the 18 was Anthony Martial after Jose Mourinho had said the French forward would start, but it transpired he was injured.

The Hornets, who were deploying a 4-1-4-1 formation, were positive in the opening stages, with the attacking midfield quartet giving their hosts a lot to think about.

One such incident happened in the ninth minute when a counter-attack from the visitors was ended when Marcos Rojo upended Richarlison 30 yards from goal, earning the defender the game’s first yellow card. But the Watford forward was unable to make the most of the free-kick, striking it well over the bar.

Rashford responded in kind with a shot over the bar from distance in open play. But that heralded a reasonable spell of possession for the home side which ended with Juan Mata, who had switched to the left briefly, crossing to the back post where Alexis Sanchez tried a volley from an acute angle, but struck it harmlessly wide of Gomes’ near post.

There was a worrying sight for Watford when Christian Kabasele slipped behind the goal at the North Stand end of the ground and collided with an advertising hoarding. Although the Belgian tried to run it off, he was soon sat down again holding his right knee and had to be replaced by Adrian Mariappa in the 21st minute.

United continued to have the majority of the possession without creating too much of note, although in the 31st minute Craig Cathcart was pulled out wide to the right as Rashford crossed and Daryl Janmaat had to be alert to get across to prevent Sanchez getting on the end of it as the corner was conceded.

That set piece resulted in the ball breaking invitingly for Rojo on the edge of the area but he struck a left-foot effort wide of Gomes’ right-hand post. The visitors were not to be let off when United had their next opening in the 35th minute.

Making the last appearance of a fine career, Michael Carrick hit an excellent long pass over the top of the defence, Mata timed his run to steal into space behind and he unselfishly squared to give Rashford the simplest of chances to make it 1-0, although England striker did look to be offside when the ball was first played.

Replays showed that while Jose Holebas had played Mata on, Cathcart had not been alive to Mata’s speed of thought and movement until it was too late.

Watford had gone into the game without an away goal in 728 minutes of playing time in all competitions, but two minutes before the break they were denied an equaliser by an excellent save.

Richarlison must have thought he’d ended his own goal drought when he met Janmaat’s inswinging cross from the right with a downward header inside the six-yard box, but Sergio Romero sprung superbly to his left to tip it behind.

Then from the resultant corner, the ball wouldn’t fall for Watford in the box but it did break for Deuloefu on the edge of the area, but his well-struck effort was straight down the keeper’s throat as United took their one-goal lead into the break.

The Hornets had the first opening of the second period when some pressure in and around the box ended with Roberto Pereyra hooking a half-volley wide.

Gracia’s men continued to have the better of the exchanges, with United seemingly content to wait for mistakes and look to play on the counter, but the visitors were to have another opportunity to get the ball into the box in the 58th minute when Janmaat’s surge was ended by a trip from Ashley Young, a foul that was deemed worthy of a booking in Lee Mason’s eyes.

That was to be Young’s last involvement as he was replaced by Luke Shaw on the hour and that was quickly followed by a second substitution for the Hornets, with Deulofeu making way for Deeney.

United were now in the ascendency and their opponents looked to be in trouble when Rashford found Sanchez on the left side of the area, he spun out from the byline before standing up a cross to the back post but the delivery had too much on it for Mata.

McTominay became the third United player to be booked for pulling back Richarlison, but Watford then looked to be in when a slack Rojo pass rebounded off Will Hughes into the path of Andre Gray with only Romero to beat. The assistant’s flag was to spare the striker’s blushes though, as he sliced badly wide of the target.

It was the striker who to make way as Chalobah made his long-awaited return from injury with 17 minutes remaining, before Ander Herrera came on for Daley Blind.

The Hornets looked like they might get in with 10 minutes remaining when a Pereyra pass set Richarlison scampering away on the left but as he prepared to pull the trigger, Rojo made a fine tackle to avert the danger.

The visitors kept the pressure on though, winning a corner but Cathcart and Abdoulaye Doucuoure rather got in each other’s way as they went to meet Holebas’s delivery from the right and Romero was able to save the header with ease.

Old Trafford rose as one – and both sets of players joined in the applause as well – with five minutes remaining when Carrick’s excellent Premier League playing career came to an end when he was replaced by Paul Pogba.

The Hornets continued to try and look for a way through until the end, but two minutes into injury time they almost conceded a second when they were caught on the counter but Sanchez was unable to find a fellow red shirt with his delivery across the box as the home side safely secured the three points.

Manchester United: Romero; Darmian, Bailly, Rojo, Young (Shaw 60); McTominay, Carrick (Pogba 85), Blind (Herrera 76); Mata, Rashford, Sanchez. Subs not used: Pereira, Jones, Lingard, Valencia.

Watford: Gomes; Janmaat, Cathcart, Kabasele (Mariappa 21), Holebas; Doucoure; Deulofeu (Deeney 63), Hughes, Pereyra, Richarlison; Gray (Chalobah 73). Subs not used: Bachmann, Prodl, Sinclair, Lukebakio.

Bookings: Rojo for a foul on Richarlison (9); Young for a foul on Janmaat (58); McTominay for a foul on Richarlison (68); Shaw for a foul on Doucoure (90).

Attendance: 75,049.

Referee: Lee Mason.