The Season Just Gone
Watford’s 2015-16 went better than they had any right to hope it could: Quique 'Smouldering' Sánchez Flores moulded the Hornets into an obdurate, effective counterattacking team in an unbelievably short amount of time and they had all but secured Premier League survival by Christmas, with a thorough evisceration of Liverpool in December the undoubted highlight of their season. It all went rather badly wrong after that, and Sánchez Flores ultimately lost his job, but they still managed to get to an FA Cup semi-final at Wembley and no Watford fan will look back on their first season back in the top flight with anything other than fondness.
Sánchez Flores’ departure will have shocked many outside Vicarage Road but the reality was that he didn’t seem to have the tools or the desire to diversify the Hornets’ approach, and their reliance on Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney to do everything in attack had stopped being endearing and had become rather embarrassing by the time May rolled around.
While Ighalo and Deeney both had spectacular seasons, scoring 28 of Watford’s 40 goals between them, relying on them to keep that kind of form going forever was an ultimately unsustainable gamble. Sánchez Flores’ unwillingness to switch from a deep and compact 4-4-2 without there being significant reinforcement in the transfer market, coupled with the Pozzo family’s unwillingness to sanction such wanton spending, meant that a parting of ways was inevitable.
The Season Ahead
Securing Walter 'Alec Baldwin' Mazzarri as Sánchez Flores’ replacement counts as a major coup for Watford and coming into 2016-17 there should be plenty of optimism regarding their chances of securing survival in the short-term and, in the long-term, cementing their status as a Premier League club. While the squad arguably needs a bit of tinkering if the players are going to flourish in Mazzarri’s favoured counter-attacking 3-5-2 system, it could also be that it’s simply been so long that the Premier League has seen anything like it that it works a charm straight out of the box.
While it would be rather unfair to expect Ighalo and Deeney to reprise the heroics of last season, it seems far more reasonable to expect the underrated Étienne Capoue and Valon Behrami to kick on and get more headlines this time around, while José Holebas, Juan Camilo Zúñiga and Nordin Amrabat could also catch a few eyes. Basically: watch this space.
First things first: there’s just absolutely no way Antonio Conte can be surprised on Saturday, given his familiarity with his counterpart in the home dugout.
Mazzarri has consistently favoured a counterattacking 3-5-2 and while his failure to play any other way at Napoli was ultimately responsible for the demise and collapse of that most iconic of Football Hipster sides, that doesn’t take away from the fact that Mazzarri built a hell of a team in Naples and, all too briefly, had them playing some unbelievably watchable football (just ask André Villas-Boas).
Given the relative strength of Napoli when compared to Watford, it would be unreasonable to expect the same results, but it would be a great surprise if Mazzarri didn’t at least try to emulate that team’s style: 100% unsophisticated verticality in attack; a tough, uncompromising back three made up of surprisingly limited journeymen at the back; lots of physicality all over the pitch. All of Mazzarri’s favourite ingredients are already in place: it’s up to him to get the best out of them.
Surely, though, Conte will be ready for anything Mazzarri throws his way. And, y’know, Chelsea are significantly better than Watford anyway.
Watford’s biggest strength at this moment in time remains the ability of their key individuals to make telling contributions when called upon. Ighalo, Deeney and Capoue demonstrated time and again last season that they could be relied on and Chelsea have to be aware of the threats they pose coming into this game.
Other than that, it’s hard to predict anything more specific: Mazzarri’s Watford remains just one Premier League game old and we haven’t really seen enough of them to know what they’re all about. That said, if Mazzarri’s 3-5-2 clicks immediately, their physical power across the pitch and stubbornness in defence could be extremely frustrating for Chelsea.
While the Hornets’ key individuals are capable of deciding just about any game, they’ve got plenty of mediocrity in their squad and enough in their starting eleven to make Chelsea confident of taking three points simply by being better than Watford.
And if Mazzarri’s 3-5-2 doesn’t click, it will almost certainly do more harm than good: a three-man defence of Craig Cathcart, Sebastian Prödl and Miguel ‘Red Card’ Britos, protected by one defensive midfielder and with attack-minded wing-backs alongside them, certainly reads like a recipe for disaster in the Premier League - especially when we consider that the wingers afforded loads of space by this system in this game will be Eden Hazard and Willian.
That said, Leicester City just won the title with a defence of Danny Simpson, Wes Morgan, Robert Huth and Christian Fuchs, so anything is possible.
Neither manager seems to have many cards to shuffle in their pack at the moment, so anything bar the below would be something of a surprise.
While it’s tempting to predict a riotous and enjoyable 4-0 win for the Blues, it’s much more likely that it’ll be a rather painful 1-0.