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Preview: Watford vs. Manchester United

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The Reds have a tricky trip to Watford on Tuesday.

Manchester United v Watford - Premier League Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Both Manchester United and Watford enter Tuesday evening’s contest having won on the weekend. The hosts thumped Newcastle 3-0, while United used a healthy slice of luck to win 1-0 over Brighton & Hove Albion. For the Red Devils, this midweek fixture presents a chance to avenge last year’s loss at Vicarage Road — a result that came in the midst of United’s autumn doldrums.

José Mourinho praised his squad’s commitment and effort after the nervy Brighton victory, but a bit more quality will be needed to extend the club’s league winning streak to three. It may not have been pretty — and some will call it undeserved — but Ashley Young’s heavily deflected goal delivered three points and, ultimately, that’s all that matters. Several other top teams (Tottenham, Liverpool, and Chelsea) dropped points this weekend, making United’s slim win all the more valuable.

One bright spot from Saturday’s struggle was the emergence of Victor Lindelöf. The much-maligned Swede produced a man-of-the-match performance that was miles better than any of his previous games in a red shirt. If this form holds, a settled Lindelöf would be an immense asset to the squad, as his passing ability gives Mourinho an extra option for unlocking packed-in defenses. Eric Bailly and Phil Jones should resume their first-choice partnership when both return to health, but Lindelöf finally looked worth his price tag.

One man whose price continues to rise is Watford’s manager, Marco Silva. Already a hot commodity, his side’s emphatic 3-0 win over Newcastle only enhanced his burgeoning reputation. After a few successful managerial stints on the continent, Silva took the reins of Hull City in January as the club took a last-ditch shot at survival. He came too late for that, but nevertheless parlayed his efforts into the top job at Vicarage Road.

Watford has started the 2017/18 season strongly, climbing up to 8th in the Premier League table. This strong run has made Silva the toast of English football — attracting attention from rival clubs, particularly manager-less Everton. The rumors have had little effect on Watford, though, as the club followed up a three-game losing run with two wins on the bounce.

Before joining the Hornets, Silva sought José Mourinho’s guidance and credits the United manager as a professional inspiration. As an up-and-coming Portuguese manager, Silva has even been labeled “the next Mourinho” in some quarters. Of course, that same label once affixed Andre Villas Boas, so it’s by no means a guarantee of future success.

The current Mourinho will certainly have his hands full preparing for Tuesday’s opponents. Against Newcastle, Watford repeatedly targeted Deandre Yedlin by counter-attacking into the space left by the fullback’s attacking forays up field. Positional discipline will therefore be paramount for (presumably) Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young. This might have been an opportunity for Mourinho to send out a three-man backline, but healthy central defenders are in short supply at the moment.

The manager may ring the changes further up field, though. After the Brighton win, Mourinho lamented his squad’s imbalance: “Sometimes you play with too many attacking players and you lose control of the game.” He continued, “We had a few problems defensively because Matić and Pogba were a bit isolated in the center of the park.”

If those words are anything to go by, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford may go back into a rotation, with one starting and the other coming on as a second-half impact substitute. Perhaps Marouane Fellaini or Ander Herrera will also come into a three-man midfield to help grab control of the game.

Any tactical decisions for Tuesday’s match will be made with one eye on the weekend’s marquee fixture at Arsenal. Will Mourinho rest any key players at Vicarage Road to keep the first-choice squad fresh for the Gunners? Plus, how much will Marcos Rojo play? Heavy minutes on both Tuesday and Saturday might be too much in this early stage of the Argentinian defender’s season.

While Manchester United have not been sharp on their travels, neither does Watford excel on home soil. Silva’s preferred tactics — based on lightning-quick transitions from defense to attack — play better on the road than at home. Watford wants their opponents to attack and leave space behind for these devastating counters. Don’t expect Mourinho to play into Silva’s hands. He’ll probably pack the midfield and aim to grind out a result. And there will definitely be chances to score, as Watford’s vulnerable defense has already allowed 21 goals so far this season.

Manchester United’s outlook for Tuesday night remains the same as always — just win.