Premier League Preview: United to stutter at Vicarage Road?


Etienne Capoue –

Here are The Football Lab’s predictions for two of the weekend’s Premier League games. Watford have only lost three games since August and look to continue their good form against Manchester United, who are struggling for goals. Remi Garde’s second game in charge of Aston Villa comes in the form of a trip to Everton, who have won just once since September.

Watford v Man Utd

Watford have surprised a lot of people by how well they have adjusted to life in the Premier League. Due to the limited amount of time Watford are on TV, it is not surprising that strikers Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo get all the credit for the team’s current position of ninth. However, there are few teams who go up and sustain a record of just 1 goal conceded per game until November. For that reason, a lot of Watford’s more defensive players are unsung heroes.

Right-back Allan Nyom has shown unrelenting energy while centre-back Craig Cathcart, a Manchester United academy graduate, has been a sturdy presence at the heart of the back-line. Even Heurelho Gomes, who was partially at fault for Watford’s 2-1 defeat at Leicester last time out, has made some key saves earlier on in the season. However, this blog would argue that their most impressive performer has been Etienne Capoue.

The Frenchman struggled due to a lack of game time at Tottenham. When he first arrived at Watford, this blog was unsure that he would offer the same kind of energy and dynamism as Adlene Guedioura, who had been a key man behind the team’s promotion. The 27-year-old has added strength, tenacity and passing quality in the middle of the park and will be central to Watford’s hopes of a top half finish.

There is potential for Watford to keep a clean sheet against Manchester United, who have failed to score in three of their last five league games. Because of this, there has been a lot of criticism levelled at forward Wayne Rooney, but one must look at the kind of system he is playing in. For England, Rooney has a few energetic players making runs off and around him. At Manchester United, the tactics are more geared towards staying tight and compact.

One must not forget that under Van Gaal, the Red Devil’s have arguably their best defence since they reached the Champions League final in 2009. However, the style of football that has allowed United to keep so many clean sheets is not conducive to fluid, high-tempo football and therefore the creation of chances. It says a lot that Robin Van Persie and Radamel Falcao, two of the best goalscorers in the world over the last five years, scored just 14 goals between them last season.

Strikers tend to be at their best when they play in teams where midfielders and wide men are running forward, pushing opposition defenders back to create gaps for the striker to finish. Rooney’s problem is that Manchester United play with a sense of caution, they like to hold onto the ball and keep their midfielders disciplined, which means there is little scope for attacking fluidity. Watford are very strong without the ball and this blog will back them to hold out for a draw.

Everton v Aston Villa

Aston Villa’s 0-0 draw with Manchester City last time out was a solid start to Remi Garde’s time in B6, but not an outstanding one. It is one thing to nick an unexpected point against the league leaders but there comes a time when Aston Villa will have to stop relying on their defence and start showing some attacking initiative.

The Villans failed to muster a single shot on target against City and seemed to lack confidence going forward. Main striker Jordan Ayew became isolated and struggled against physical centre-backs while Scott Sinclair produced nothing in the final third.

Garde has had a couple of weeks to work with his players and it will be intriguiging to see the way he sets them up in the next few games. The Man City match suggested a narrow 4-5-1 formation but that might be due to the quality of opposition, rather than the manager’s general philosophy. At Lyon, the Frenchman had a reputation for encouraging open, free-flowing football and if he is to do that at Villa Park, it is vital that he instills some more confidence in his players.

His first major blow as Villa manager has been the injury to left-back Jordan Amavi, who has been arguably the team’s best player thus far. If Villa are to have any hope of getting the best out of Rudy Gestede between now and January, when they will no doubt want to buy a striker, they need players who can cross a ball. Amavi was very effective at getting forward and delivering pinpoint balls into the box for a target man like Gestede to thrive off and the left-back will be sorely missed. Now, Kieran Richardson will have to take Amavi’s place and that could become an area of weakness.

Over the last few years, Aston Villa have failed to push on from the Martin O’Neill days and are struggling to live up to their status as one of the bigger clubs in England. One could say the same about Everton, who finished in the bottom half for the first time in over a decade last season and are currently ninth in the Premier League.

Everton are conceding too many goals and one wonders whether it is time for goalkeeper Tim Howard to be dropped. The American has a good relationship with manager Roberto Martinez, which perhaps explains his consistent inclusion when, in the past, Joel Robles has performed well in Howard’s absence. Martinez seems to think that the experience Howard offers in an otherwise youthful side is important, yet this blog would argue that he keeps making costly mistakes and cannot be relied on for much longer.

There is also a need for more balance in this Everton team. While Romelu Lukaku is a good goalscorer, he is not always dynamic enough to lead the line on his own and seems to have certain attitude problems. Often, it is only when Arouna Kone and other more industrious players move further forward to support Lukaku that he looks a threat. The problem with this is that Everton cannot start with two or three players pushing ahead of Lukaku to create chances for him, because they would lose their midfield structure.

The Toffees have only won three of their last nine games and the gap between themselves and midtable mediocrity is narrowing. If Aston Villa put in another disciplined performance, they may have what it takes to get a point at Everton. However, the Villans need to show more confidence in the final third if they are to avoid a first season outside the top flight in 27 years.