The Europa League proved more valuable as a recreational excursion for away fans than as an actual football match, which was one of the most dreadful performances in Manchester United’s recent past- that statement says a lot. United looked lethargic and unable to move the ball at pace; the periods of possession and relentless fluidity of the archetypal 4-3-3 system was not replicated in United’s football. However, the Premier League promises a more enthusiastic occasion, and with United travelling to Vicarage Road to challenge Walter Mazarri’s Watford, Jose Mourinho’s men have a perfect match to bounce back from the pandemonium of the Manchester Derby and the silent nightmare of the Europa League.
Watford is an intriguing opponent due to the tactical versatility and individual quality at their disposal. Most often deployed in a 3-5-2 at the beginning of matches, the side is chopped and changed by Mazarri throughout the match as required. Fundamentally, though, the side consists of a few main positional players. Most relevantly to the system are the two wingbacks who join midfield in transition and the three centre-halves when defending. The midfield three features one creative player, typically new-man Roberto Pereyra who arrived from Juventus, Etienne Capoue, who is relishing his current creative freedom, and Valon Behrami holding the side together.
The majority of Watford’s attacking prowess is provided by Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney, two strikers who similarly dovetail but offer completely different tactical threats. Deeney is famous for holding up the ball and playing back-to-goal while Ighalo, a United fan, runs beyond him and tries to angle on goal. Both players are incredibly physical and adept in the air, which allows Watford to create goals from wide areas. In addition, Ighalo and Deeney’s prolific goalscoring is Watford’s claim to a Premier League place, and it showed last season- in the Europa League positions when Ighalo was scoring goals, they finished 13th when Ighalo went on a massive scoring drought.
For the first time this Premier League season, the majority of United’s side is impossible to predict. United has played in both 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 formation over this past week. David de Gea, Antonio Valencia, Luke Shaw, Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic will start, but the other six players are likely unknown. That means I will pick the best-equipped side to deal with Watford’s threat, with obvious players included.
Watford’s attacking unit has yielded the same number of goals as United’s so far this term, though four of the seven came against Slaven Bilic’s porous West Ham side last week. United needs to stop Watford scoring and the best way to do that would be to prevent Watford from moving the ball in key areas. United should have a two-v-one advantage on the wing regardless of who plays there, and with Eric Bailly and Chris Smalling at the back, both need to cover one of Watford’s hitmen. Watford completes 74% of their passes compared to United’s 84%, and if the wing options are nullified, Watford could struggle to complete 60% of their passes, odds dictate that after three passes they would fail.
To cause a disruption, United needs to play three in midfield to match Watford’s midfield three. Morgan Schneiderlin is equipped to help Smalling and Bailly distribute out of defence, picking up the ball from between them and moving forward. With Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba in midfield, United has the tools to cause a disruption and force Watford’s midfielders apart, then, balls need to be played into channels. From the channels, United will be able to break down Watford’s defence in one of two ways, barring individual excellence.
The typical weakness of a 3-5-2/5-3-2 system is the space in between the wingbacks and their outside centre-halves. Therefore, I’ve deployed Ashley Young on the left to take advantage of the defensively problematic Nordin Amrabat, Daryl Janmaat may play too, but United can still get in behind.
The primary defensive weakness in any 3-5-2 system is the space between the wingbacks and centre-halves. With wingbacks even slightly out of position, Young (left) can run into these channels and be picked out by Pogba, forcing one centre-half out of position and allowing Rooney and Ibrahimovic to go two-v-two with the centre-backs. Then, Herrera or Pogba can run into the new channel between the defenders while Young crosses the ball, and United will have created an aerial advantage.
The second method of chance-creation will be based on the ability to exploit space between defence and midfield. Often, when 3-5-2/5-3-2 sides stretch the pitch, the deployment of a third centre-half as opposed to a defensive midfielder creates space between the defence and midfield. In some cases, Valon Behrami will occupy that space, but in any situation, Pogba and Herrera (or whoever else may play) will need to do everything to transition into that space. Pogba and Herrera can then shoot from range, or if the defenders come out to stop them, they can play the likes of Rooney, Young and Ibrahimovic, who should move into the new vacancies of space behind. The faster United can transition the ball into these areas, the more defenders needed to commit to a challenge.
Therefore, battles between Ibrahimovic, Rooney and Watford defenders, Smalling, Bailly and Watford’s strikers and the two midfielders will be the most vital in deciding the match. Both sides play very narrow football and will depend on the fullbacks to provide all width. Overall, though, United has all the tools to get the better of this Watford side, and they should do on the day.