By Dean Gregory
Watford vs Aston Villa
A hard fought win against direct relegation rivals Norwich on Boxing Day is followed swiftly by a crunch match against another struggler, Watford. They currently occupy 19th place, five points behind Villa and six points adrift of safety.
After being rooted to the bottom of the table for much of the season and in danger of being left stranded, a shock win against Man Utd and a draw against Sheffield Utd have seen them leapfrog Norwich. They will be looking to gather more momentum under Nigel Pearson and chase down their next target.
Can Villa keep their opponents at arms length, or will Watford close the gap?
Watford – L D L W D
Aston Villa – L L L L W
Nigel Pearson on preperation
“You don’t have a chance to do a lengthy debrief. It’s all about recovery which has already started in terms of nutrition, in terms of going to the cryo-chamber.
“You don’t have a lot of time getting your prep right in terms of being on the field because the day before a game would normally be at the end of a week when you’ve had your technical practice and the day before is often just fine-tuning.”
On home fixture importance
“We have got a run of home games coming up now and I don’t know how people see them, but they are all tough.
“We have got to try and emulate certainly the game last week against Manchester United in terms of creating a really good atmosphere at the ground and we need to win more games.”
Dean Smith on Jack Grealish
“Jack showed what he was all about. He showed great leadership and maturity in his performance today.
“He wants the ball anywhere, whether it’s in our box or theirs – in the last minute he’s there to calm it down.
“And he’s also creating in the opposition box as well, I wanted to get him closer to Wes. Wes worked his socks off today and you can see the supporters willing him to do well, willing all the players to do well. I’m thankful as well to the fans who have stuck behind us brilliantly.”
“He can still get better. There’s more to see. This is the highest goalscoring season of his career. He’s started to make more assists. He’s doing it at the top tier. There’s more to come.”
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Watford have experimented with a number of formations so far, but have recently settled with a 4-2-3-1, with Troy Deeney up front, Gerard Deulofeu and Ismaila Sarr on the wings with Etienne Capoue shielding the defenders, Christian Kabasele and Craig Cathcart.
They have found maintaining control of the ball to be tricky this season, with an average of 45.2% possession and 75.3% passing accuracy. Even in their win against Man Utd they saw 36.1% of the ball and completed just 67% of their passes. These numbers suggest they don’t try to play on the back foot, they simply lack cohesion when in possession.
An eye-watering 41 yellow cards in the Premier League is indicative of a team prone to being reckless in frustration. Of the five players in the squad with four or more yellow cards, all but one are defensive players, suggesting they find themselves in tricky situations often and lack the composure to deal with them effectively.
They have only managed to score 12 goals so far, but that is not for a lack of trying – an xG of 21.73 across the season is an underperformance of 9.73 xG. They average 1.14 xG per match – if they could put their chances away, they could find themselves climbing up the table comfortably.
33 goals conceded is level with Villa. A disjointed, reckless defence is letting them down at the moment. With a new manager at the helm, one with a track record for tightening teams up at the back, it seems as though they have the components in place to start changing their fortunes.
One to Watch
Striker Troy Deeney hasn’t featured heavily this season due to injury. He is coming back though and has started all three of Pearson’s games – judging by his influence at Watford over the last few seasons, his return to form will be welcomed by his teammates.
A classic roughhousing center-forward who is strong, relentless, good in the air and knows where the net is, he will be a handful for Villa’s center-backs. The fact he is a bluenose will only add fuel to his desire to score.
Watford 0-1 Aston Villa – 24th August 1999
Mark Delaney scored the only goal the last time Villa beat Watford at Vicarage Road. This was only the 14th time these two sides have faced each other.
How it could play out
Watford have spent much of this season in turmoil. They are already on their third manager of the season after re-hiring Quique Sanchez Flores to replace Javi Gracia, only to re-fire him once again in favour of Nigel Pearson.
Nigel Pearson could very well turn out to be a shrewd bit of business – he has a reputation for keeping teams in the Premier League against the odds, and seems to have found some level of stability at Watford only three games in.
A win over Man Utd, despite being second best in almost every aspect of the game, was quite the result.
Meanwhile, Villa have claimed all six available points over Norwich and, while the last match wasn’t pretty, a win is a win and keeps them within one positive result of escaping the dropzone. A five point gap between them and Watford means a loss wouldn’t doom Villa, but in the context of the whole season, a win here could be a vital result.
While it can be argued that this is a must-win match, it is worth putting into perspective that Villa are far from being cut adrift from the rest of the pack. Three points could jump them four places in 14th and within four points of the top ten.
With that in mind, a point would be seen as a decent enough result against a Watford side who are starting to show some life. As it’ll be far from easy.
Watford, however, are in danger of falling away. A win for them would be everything, while a loss would open up a gap that will seem insurmountable. With a new fire lit underneath them and the wind starting to blow in their direction, the stage is set for a tumultuous match.
Watford 1-2 Aston Villa
Aston Villa surely have what it takes to steal a win here, right? They have conceded the same amount of goals as Watford, but they have also scored twice as many. As such, both teams will score a goal, but Villa will score twice as many. It’s basic maths.
Seriously speaking though, Villa will do well to get anything from a vastly improving team, to do so will be an encouraging demonstration of the player’s fight for the season ahead.