Mourinho wary of “defensive” Watford as Reds aim to boost Old Trafford returns
When Watford’s favourite son, the late Graham Taylor, brought his team to Old Trafford for a League Cup Third Round tie in 1978 the Hornets left the Rainy City with a 2-1 victory. The goals, both from Luther Blissett, handed Watford the club’s only win on the red side of Manchester. Back in September, the contemporary version also beat United, this time at Vicarage Road. The calamitous 3-1 defeat for the Reds concluded a series of three reverses on the bounce for José Mourinho’s outfit. Neither United nor the Portuguese manager can accept a similar outcome as Watford visits Old Trafford on Saturday.
Watford’s victory earlier this season gave the club its first Premier League points over United, ending the Reds’ run of 11 consecutive wins in all competitions against the southern club, stretching back to 1986. No longer United’s whipping boys, Watford ran out comfortable victors, soaking up United’s pressure and striking effectively on the break.
"When Watford’s favourite son, the late Graham Taylor, brought his team to Old Trafford for a League Cup Third Round tie in 1978 the Hornets left the Rainy City with a 2-1 victory."
Mourinho’s side looks far more settled now, of course, and United’s victory over Leicester City last weekend brought to an end another poor run, with the team having dropped points against Liverpool, Stoke City and Hull City in recent weeks.
That series of draws has proven an opportunity lost as rivals for European places also dropped points in the New Year. Still, the chase for the Champions League has at least compressed since the early winter. United now lies just five points off Tottenham Hotspur in second; two and goal difference off Arsenal in fourth.
In scoring three at the King Power Stadium Mourinho’s team also brought to a close a frustrating period in which chances created were too rarely converted into goals. Or enough points.
Mourinho once called his team “the unluckiest in the Premier League,” although the Reds’ troubles before the new year were mostly of their own making. There can be no excuses now though. United faces a fixture list that includes no matches against any top six side until Chelsea’s visit to Manchester mid April. Nor will injuries or suspensions get in the way, at least not yet, with a nearly fully fit squad available to the manager this weekend.
It is unlikely, however, that United will get as easy a ride this week as Mourinho’s side enjoyed in the east Midlands. Watford’s form, unlike that of Leicester, has held up well this season. The Foxes’ powder-puff title defence could yet end in the embarrassing calamity of relegation. That scenario certainly showed promise in defeat to United. By contrast, Watford lies comfortably in mid-table, recovering well after a difficult start to the campaign under new manager Walter Mazzarri.
To move forward Mourinho’s men must break a pattern of home league draws in the league that now reaches six matches this season. That’s 12 points dropped, many in deeply frustrating circumstances, many against opposition ready to sit deep and defend.
It is a recurring narrative to which Mourinho has seemingly little answer. Watford’s approach is unlikely to be much different this weekend. After all, Mazzarri’s side sat back and slaughtered United on the break at Vicarage Road. The southerners out muscled Mourinho’s team as well.
“I know they are very difficult. They are very defensive but there are teams that are defensive and not well organised. That’s not Watford’s case,” said Mourinho in his weekly press conference.
“Walter is a very good coach, the team is very well organised and then they have this capacity of being dangerous on the counter-attack and at set-pieces with a very physical team.”
Yet, Mourinho must find a solution to that equation. Burnley, Stoke, Hull, even Arsenal, conceded possession and momentum to United, but walked away with a point thanks to the Reds’ attacking profligacy and, at times, limited imagination in the final third. It really shouldn’t be this way given the multifaceted attacking talents available at Old Trafford.
Not that United’s potential hasn’t also been demonstrated at this season. At the King Power, for example, Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s brilliant opener was followed up with two well taken goals and a highly controlled performance. It was the kind of performance that supporters expected when Mourinho was appointed last summer. He will also demand the same again. Whether the manager gets it is another question.
Mazzarri took over the Watford role in June following Quique Sánchez Flores departure. The Spaniard had enjoyed a strong first campaign in the Premier League, taking Watford to a mid-table position on the Hornets‘ return to the top division. Flores left having not reached “the necessary conditions” to trigger a contract renewal. The club’s owners are ambitious, although it was still a tough outcome for the now Espanyol coach.
Under Mazzarri Watford has taken a more rugged approach to the game. One that is not always easy on the eye, but robust enough to earn eight victories this season, albeit with a side that has, at times, leaked far too many goals.
It is approach built on simple, perhaps even old-fashioned mores: “Work, respect and honesty are the values transmitted from my family,” Mazzarri notes.
Patience too. Mazzarri spent more than a year based in England waiting for a job in the Premier League, located not in the capital but Manchester. “The Real England,” as he puts it. It paid off in the summer and neither coach nor club has looked back.
Mazzarri’s side scored victory over Arsenal at the Emirates earlier this month, in addition to that victory over United in September. Two highlights of the season, although Watford’s defence will surely be tested severely at Old Trafford this weekend. Mazzarri’s side has conceded 40 goals already this season. Mourinho, take note.
Phil Jones is missing in an otherwise clean bill of health for United this weekend. Wayne Rooney returns to the matchday squad after missing the Reds’ win at Leicester through illness, although Mourinho is unlikely to make many changes for Watford’s visit.
The manager is looking to yet another combination at the back after selecting Chris Smalling and Eric Bailly in central defence at the King Power Stadium. With Jones out, and Mourinho unhappy with the now ostracised Luke Shaw, Marcos Rojo featured on the left in Leicester.
“Every team needs four central defenders,” noted Mourinho. “But we coped well without Eric. The other guys did very, very well. Now it’s time for Jones to be out and time for Eric to be in. Of course, we’re happy he played already that last match and he showed again security and understanding with the other guys, so we’re fine.”
United subs from: Romero, Blind, Fosu-Mensah, Shaw, Darmian, Young, Schweinsteiger, Fellaini, Mata, Lingard, Martial, Rooney
Watford subs from: Gilmartin, Janmaat, Watson, Folivi, Rowan, Stewart, Mason, Zúñiga, Kabasele, Kabasele
Mourinho is likely to select his most potent midfield combination of Michael Carrick, Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera, although the manager could gamble on a more attacking approach at Old Trafford. Juan Mata and Mkhitaryan combined well in victory over Leicester – and there is an outside chance that the Spaniard could be drafted into an attacking unit at Carrick’s expense.
In attack Zlatan Ibrahimovic is most likely to be flanked by the Armenian and one of Anthony Martial or Marcus Rashford. Given Martial’s current status, the Englishman will probably get the nod.
Watford, meanwhile, brings two former Reds on the trip north. Tom Cleverley has returned to the club at which he enjoyed a highly successful loan spell as a youngster hoping to revitalise a flagging career. He is joined by former United academy player Craig Cathcart, who is likely to feature in the visitors’ back four.
Elsewhere Mazzarri as a number of injury concerns ahead of Saturday’s kick off with Valon Behrami and Miguel Britos both doubtful, while Costel Pantilimon, Nordin Amrabat, Christian Kabasele and Roberto Peyrera are all definitely out.
Referee: Robert Madley
Assistants: M Perry, D Bryan
Fourth official: K Friend
United 2-0 Watford