Nigel Pearson takes charge of his first home game as Watford manager as the Hornets host Manchester United on Sunday afternoon, looking for a much-needed win in their battle against relegation.
The signs were much more promising for Watford despite a 2-0 defeat at Liverpool on Saturday, as a wasteful attack saw them picked off by the ever-clinical Reds. This has been the story of the season, with only nine goals all season and under-performing their xG by 10.47 goals. However, Pearson will be buoyed by the quality of chance created, and how they were able to frustrate Liverpool defensively for long periods, and with a United side often struggling to break teams down from open play coming to visit, it could see an upturn in form.
Manchester United sit 6th in the Premier League ahead of their trip to London, after a hard-fought draw at home to Everton, where Mason Greenwood rescued a point late on. A routine 3-0 win over Colchester in the Carabao Cup followed on Wednesday night, as Ole Gunnar Solksjaer opted for a strong line-up against the League 2 side, but it meant for a fourth win in five in all competitions for the Red Devils, and sets up for an intriguing game on Sunday afternoon.
There were promising signs in Pearson’s first game in charge of Watford, as his side caused Liverpool problems, and the new manager opted for a 4-2-3-1 formation against Jurgen Klopp’s side, designed to effectively counter attack, and try and link the play better to target man Troy Deeney. It would be expected that Pearson will look to employ a similar line up and formation for Manchester United’s trip to Vicarage Road on Sunday, and it opens up some interesting key battles on the pitch, particularly with United themselves preferring a 4-2-3-1 in recent weeks.
Watford’s play on Saturday can draw similarities with the approach which Everton took to Old Trafford on Sunday, with Pearson’s side looking to target the Liverpool backline with long balls, whilst being happy to give up possession for long periods of the game. Attempting 66 long balls through the match, and only completing 64% of passes, it highlighted the way that Pearson looked to get his side to play, and should be expected again on Sunday. Sitting off the Liverpool backline, the centre backs were able to rack up 98 and 92 passes completed respectively, and as a result this could be a market to keep an eye on, particularly for Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof, who are adept at playing from the back.
Deeney competed in 17 aerial duels against Liverpool, winning six, however Lindelof and Maguire did show they were more than capable of dealing with this threat against Everton, with Maguire in particular impressing, winning all nine of his aerial duels. As a result, Everton looked to move the target men wider and isolate the smaller, less aerial proficient Aaron Wan-Bissaka, and this saw them have a lot more joy, winning three of four against the full back, and Deeney could move into the channels to try have more joy. As a result, if he is able to win the first ball, it does open up the channels as an area where Watford can try target Manchester United, particularly with the tricky options of Gerard Deulofeu and Ismaila Sarr at Pearson’s disposal.
With United expected to dominate the ball and take the game to Watford, this, as ever, puts the impetus on the Red Devils full backs to move forward and provide width. This, coupled with Marcus Rashford and Dan James playing high, and often lacking the defensive support for the full backs, could be an avenue that Watford target, and was in particular and area that Everton had joy in the first half, helped by a gamble from Duncan Ferguson to play a high line to try and condense the play and stop United from having an out ball for long periods in a congested central area.
However, United were able to play through this on occasion, and with the injuries taking their toll for Watford, particularly at full back, it may represent too high a risk for Watford, and James’ first half chance when released by Scott McTominay did highlight the risk of doing so. The shortage of full backs saw Adrian Mariappa start at right back against Liverpool, and whilst the veteran was helped by the industrious midfield in front of him, it is a particular worry if left up against Rashford and Luke Shaw down the left. Much like Rashford on his wing, the trade-off between the attacking threat and defensive work of Sarr is an area of interest, as for Deulofeu down the opposite flank, and this could prove a key outlet for both sides, particularly with United’s full backs more open to providing the width and looking to get in behind.
United have struggled to break teams down who opt for a low-block this season, however Jesse Lingard’s timely improvement in form has coincided with a more balanced midfield, allowing McTominay and Fred to see a pick-up in form, and up against the three of Abdoulaye Doucoure, Etienne Capoue and Will Hughes in the middle of midfield for Watford, it makes for an intriguing battle.
Doucoure will be expected to provide the box-to-box link for target man Deeney, so marking him out the game will prove key to United’s hopes of keeping Watford quiet, whilst a similar task will fall to Hughes and Capoue and try and keep Lingard at bay.
It makes for an intriguing battle at Vicarage Road on Sunday, especially with United’s upturn in form, coupled with an improving Watford side who just can’t catch a break in front of goal, and whether the early season frustrations of United in front of goal in these kinds of games return awaits to be seen.
A tough game to call with it being only Pearson’s second game in charge, he will be expecting his side to keep it tight and frustrate a Manchester United side who have at times struggled to break teams down this season. Watford themselves, despite a much higher expected goals, have particularly struggled in front of goal this season, and the two factors combined do mean that Under 2.5 goals can take appeal above even money. Available at 2.06 (MarathonBet), it is certainly worth considering, especially after a much-improved defensive performance at Anfield last weekend.
Both sides tricky wingers do bring into play the card markets, particularly if the game does open up if an opening goal is forthcoming, and the Manchester United left back could have a tough time up against Sarr at left wing. He has been given a license to attack the full backs in the past games for Watford, and coming up against Luke Shaw, it is an area of interest. With Rashford often leaving the full back exposed, and Kiko Femenia expected to add a more dynamic option than Mariappa at right back, it could see Shaw struggle up against the Senegalese winger, and priced at 4.33 (Bet365), is worth a look.