As the first international break of the season comes to a close, eyes are firmly placed back onto domestic football with some important fixtures taking place at the weekend. After Manchester United’s resurgent win against Burnley gave them a much-needed lift, José Mourinho’s men travel to Watford to take on one of the remaining four clubs with a 100% record.
The Red Devils have usually enjoyed such trips to Vicarage Road having won all but two since 1987, but one Mourinho’s first away fixtures when taking over in 2016 was against Watford, which resulted in a 3-1 defeat. Although United have won the last three matches, there is a sense of vulnerability about the club right now that Watford, high and mighty with confidence, will prey on.
Since taking over from Marco Silva last season, Javi Gracia has impressed many Watford fans with his diligent approach to the game, but also adding some stylistic measures into his team’s performances. While Gracia’s preferred formation is a classic 4-4-2, which some can call outdated and rigid, the Spaniard has managed to alter it in order to get the best from his players and create an attack-minded team.
The most impressive performance in the Hornets’ opening four fixtures was their comeback win against Tottenham just before Internationals took over. After going 1-0 down just after half time, it was always going to be a test to see Watford’s mentality and strength in coming from behind.
Troy Deeney, the club’s captain, led that charge with some fantastic surging runs as well as throwing his body around and making sure he was first to every ball. That type of hunger and desire resonates throughout the team and it showed, as Watford picked up their spirits and staged a comeback which enabled the club to record its first victory against Tottenham since 1994.
A lot of Watford’s attacking intent has come down the left-hand side. Greece international José Holebas occupies the left back position, with Argentine Roberto Pereyra, signed from Juventus in 2016, ahead of him in left midfield. It might be a very basic method that has been seen time and time again, but the use of an overlap has caught teams out this season when facing Watford, with the North London club reaping the rewards.
Holebas has four assists and one goal to his name in the opening four games, while Pererya has three goals. They have been the source of Watford’s attacks and have troubled Brighton, Burnley, Crystal Palace and Tottenham’s defences. Against United, those two players will most likely be coming up against Jesse Lingard, who drifts inside and leaves gaps in behind, and Antonio Valencia.
The season is still early with players gauging their feet, but Mourinho’s defence has looked disorganised at the best of times. With an ever-changing back four, Watford could cause havoc in between the lines, as well as down the left wing with their two inform players.
A troubling thought for Mourinho will be how to overcome Deeney’s aerial threat and physical presence when he has nervous wrecks as centre backs at his disposal. Gracia will, quite clearly, tell Deeney to rough up whoever his opponent might be and make sure he’s giving them a hard time.
Whether it’s Eric Bailly, Victor Lindelöf, Chris Smalling or Phil Jones, all have had a tough few weeks in a Manchester United jersey and will be playing on eggshells knowing the manager has berated them and wanted to sign a first choice centre back in the summer transfer window to improve his defence.
While there are negatives around United at the moment with certain players not pulling their weight, the likes of Luke Shaw, Marouane Fellaini, Fred and Lingard have impressed. Shaw, especially, has arguably been the Red Devils’ best player in terms of both in an attacking sense as well as a defensive one. He was knocked unconscious in England’s Nations League match against Spain, but is said to be healthy and should be fit for next weekend’s Premier League tie.
Shaw has had a tough road back to becoming United’s leading left back, but he has started the season extremely strong and will want to keep the consistency going for as long as possible. His surging, meandering runs have aided United’s attacks tenfold as they now have a capable full back who can deliver crosses into dangerous areas.
Alexis Sánchez is a player who has not yet shown his best in a United jersey, but with the summer’s rest that he desperately needed, the Chilean should be a key figure in the season ahead. There were bright parts to his game against Burnley – in which he recorded his first assist of the campaign with a fabulous cross into Romelu Lukaku’s path – and Mourinho will be hoping that he can count on him moving forward.
Watford will throw everything they can to keep their winning streak and the home crowd is set to be electric given the current mood around Vicarage Road. It will be a testing game for Mourinho’s players, but the quality they have on the ball should be enough to return back to Manchester with three vital points.
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