Manchester United vs Watford: Three key battles

Source: The Guardian
Source: The Guardian /

Manchester United return to Premier League play following the international break with a trip to Vicarage Road to face Watford.

Prior to the break from league play, the Red Devils had been in decent form with victories against CSKA Moscow in the Champions League and West Brom in the Premier League. United has also only lost once since the debacle against Arsenal, falling in penalties to Middlesbrough in the League Cup.

Watford, however, has seen a mixed bag of results with seven points in the last five matches in the league. The Hornets have performed above expectations in their first year back in the top league of England, as they sit 11th in the table with 16 points.

The two sides could not be more different, as Manchester United look to possess and break down the opposition, while Watford, as you’d expect from a newly promoted side, plays long balls of the top in the hopes of a chance on goal. However, both teams have somewhat impressive defensive records thus far, with five consecutive clean sheets for United and two cleans sheets for Watford in the past five.

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For that reason, in combination with a match away from Old Trafford, Manchester United could have a tough time against the bottom half side. With injuries further jeopardizing the team, the match could come down to a few players with stellar performances, so here are the three key battles that could determine the outcome.

Juan Mata vs Nathan Ake

Mata has had a slightly above average season thus far, including a goal from the spot in United’s last match against West Brom to seal the win. However, prior to that goal, he hadn’t scored or assisted since September’s victory over Wolfsburg, when he did both.

Anthony Martial picked up an injury in France’s friendly against England, meaning he will likely be left off the team sheet for the fixture. Additionally, given Jesse Lingard’s sensational form, the defenders could key in on the left winger. That would leave United desperate for attacking creativity. Paired with his Spanish international teammate Ander Herrera, Mata could provide enough of a spark to tilt the match in his side’s favor.

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Unfortunately for the 27-year-old, he’ll be matched up against Nathan Ake, one of Watford’s most in form players. In the Hornets’ recent 2-0 victories over West Ham, Ake led his side in total tackles with 11, while managing three shots against West Ham.

Morgan Schneiderlin vs Troy Deeney

The French midfielder hasn’t featured since the goalless draw against Crystal Palace at the end of October, but with Michael Carrick set to miss the game he’ll likely partner up with Bastian Schweinsteiger at the heart of the midfield. When Schneiderlin has played, he’s been relatively consistent – boasting a passing accuracy over 90%.

Defensively, he matches up well, which will grant Schweinsteiger more freedom to foray forward in attack. Against Watford, he’ll come up against Deeney, arguably their best player so far this year. With two goals in the last three matches and three assists on the year, the 27-year-old has been vital for the Hornets’ early season success.

At Vicarage on Saturday, Louis van Gaal’s side will undoubtedly dominate possession, forcing the home team to look for goals off long balls over the top or quick counters. If Schneiderlin can limit Deeney’s impact when Watford does look to break, United could once again register a clean sheet and another victory.

Chris Smalling and Phil Jones vs Odion Ighalo

Ighalo is without doubt Watford’s best attacking player, with already seven goals and two assists in the Premier League. Fortunately for the United defense, he doesn’t do his damage off set pieces or crosses.

Smalling and Jones have proven they can contain the opposition’s striker so far this season, with their defensive partnership having been one of the team’s strong points up to this point. The two England internationals will likely find success against Ighalo, as he has failed to contribute against the better teams in the league.

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If the Manchester United central pair can separate the striker from the midfield, they’ll likely emerge victorious. As was the case with Rondon in the West Brom match, without a striker to hold up play and relieve pressure on the defense, the Red Devils will eventually go on to net a couple goals.