It is time for the Premier League title challengers to face their biggest test yet. Can Watford prove their credentials against Manchester United?
Watford have made a perfect start to the Premier League season, with their comeback victory over Tottenham a particular highlight. They host United at Vicarage Road in Saturday evening‚Äôs tantalising clash, and the visitors will be eager to prove that victory over Burnley last time out was not a one-off.
Will United create against one of the Premier League‚Äôs stingiest defences? Might Paul Pogba be the focal point of both sides‚Äô tactical approaches? Let‚Äôs take a look at the biggest questions facing these two behemoths‚Ä¶
Do Manchester United need ‚Äúa little bit of Marouane physicality‚ÄĚ again?
The decision to hand Marouane Fellaini his first start of the season against Burnley was seen as a desperate final gamble from a manager under immense pressure. Manchester United had to beat the Clarets before the international break ‚Äď simply trying to avoid defeat would have been inexcusable. So it was striking to see summer signing Fred dropped in favour of the tallest and most narrow central midfield in history.
‚ÄúThey are physical, they are direct, they go very direct to the box,‚ÄĚ was Jose Mourinho‚Äôs pre-match explanation, referring to Burnley‚Äôs rather agricultural approach. ‚ÄúThey are very pragmatic and we thought that we needed a little bit of Marouane physicality for that.‚ÄĚ
To his credit, the plan worked wonderfully. Fellaini impressed alongside Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic at Turf Moor, aided by a lifeless Burnley performance. This was far from the old dog learning new tricks, more the old dog performing one of the few tricks he knows still works.
Fellaini won the most headers of any player, and twice as many as any of his teammates (7). He made the most clearances of any United player (7), and offered stability and accurate passing from midfield. There are few players more capable of carrying out simple tasks with minimal fuss than a disciple in complete awe of their leader.
If Fellaini was a necessary weapon to counteract any threat posed by Burnley, the same has to be said of Watford. The Hornets rank sixth for tackles per game (19,3), fourth for fouls per game (13) and second for long balls (77) ‚Äď they are more ‚Äúphysical‚ÄĚ, more ‚Äúdirect‚ÄĚ than Burnley on each metric. Mourinho will surely fight fire with fire again.
What is the answer to United‚Äôs full-back conundrum?
After a brief experiment with a three-man defence went up in smoke against Tottenham, Mourinho reverted to his favoured 4-3-3 formation to great effect against Burnley. It was hardly flawless against Leicester, and was horribly exposed against Brighton, but allowed for a greater balance against the Clarets.
The absence of Luke Shaw almost confirms the system will be retained against Watford. United have options ‚Äď however underwhelming ‚Äď at left-back, but none quite strike that same balance of potency in attack and stability in defence as a wing-back. Mourinho would be a fool to try and replicate the system with unsuitable personnel.
The most likely solution is that Ashley Young fills in at left-back, with Antonio Valencia keeping his place on the right. Considering Watford rely on overloading that flank with Jose Holebas (1 goal, 4 assists), Roberto Pereyra (3 goals) and often Troy Deeney (2 goals, 1 assist), that role should not be overlooked. Everton (44%) are the only side to launch more attacks down the left-hand side than the Hornets (43%), so Valencia will need to be at his best.
Can Manchester United bypass the press?
In the first three games, Watford used their 4-2-2-2 formation to press the opposition‚Äôs defence in numbers, with the quartet of Andre Gray, Deeney, Will Hughes and Pereyra forcing individual mistakes and winning the ball back in dangerous areas. Brighton, Burnley and Crystal Palace struggled to cope, and the Hornets stung them on the counter.
Against Tottenham, it was a slightly different story. Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld are two of the Premier League‚Äôs most proficient ball-playing centre-halves, and the presence of Davinson Sanchez alongside them offered both another option and an insurance policy. Watford had one shot in the first half, but most notable was that they made just four successful tackles. The two were directly linked ‚Äď without winning the ball in high positions, they had to rely on either individual brilliance or flowing team moves against one of the best defensive teams in the league.
It was only through perseverance ‚Äď and a slight change for Deeney ‚Äď that it eventually paid off. The captain stopped drifting left and instead moved central to occupy two defenders, and his physicality was key. In terms of strikers, he (1.5) ranks behind only Roberto Firmino (2.4) and Sadio Mane (1.8) for tackles per 90 minutes, and he helped them gain a foothold at Vicarage Road.
With Watford making more interceptions per game (16.3) than all but one other team, and¬†Hughes (4.5) and Etienne Capoue (3.8) ranking in the top four for tackles per 90 minutes, United must be quick, decisive and accurate in possession, particularly in defence. Are any of Mourinho‚Äôs centre-halves really up to that task?
Will Watford target Paul Pogba?
To that end, Pogba will play an important role. He is United‚Äôs playmaker, tasked with linking the midfield and attack together seamlessly. When he plays well, so invariably do his teammates. When he plays badly, there is a noticeable dip in the team‚Äôs performance too.
If Watford find even the slightest chink in Pogba‚Äôs armour, they will look to exploit it. Only Wilfried Zaha (19) and Aleksandar Mitrovic (17) have been dispossessed more often than the Frenchman (14) this season, and both play further forward in positions where the opposition cannot inflict immediate damage. For Pogba, being tackled or making a poor pass can be punished almost instantly, particularly with Hughes, Capoue and Abdoulaye Doucoure already proving highly effective as midfield shields. One moment of complacency from a player who questioned his own attitude in similar circumstances away at Brighton could prove incredibly costly.
Are Manchester United capable of creating chances?
It is the immovable object against the often resistible force. United have had their moments this season, such as in the first ten minutes against Leicester and during parts of the first half against Tottenham and Burnley. But too much of their play has been disjointed, individuals with different styles mashed together instead of one cohesive unit clicking.
The brilliance of Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez and Jesse Lingard should be enough to overcome many an opposition, but not one as organised as Watford in this form. Only Liverpool and Manchester City have conceded fewer shots per game, only Liverpool have conceded fewer goals, and no team has faced fewer shots on target.
Mourinho has stated in no uncertain terms that an error-prone defence has led to a stodgy attack. He must find a way of remedying that not only away at a side with a perfect record, but against a squad who have spent the majority of the international break preparing to prove a point ‚Äď and gain three ‚Äď in this very match. If United are victorious, it would be an excellent result.