Having never won on the opening day of a Premier League season, Watford will be hoping to set the record straight during the season-opener against Brighton this weekend.
With the transfer window now slammed shut, both sides have completed their business and assembled what they believe to be their strongest squads as they embark on the season ahead. So how do the two teams match up ahead of kick-off on Saturday afternoon?
Due to a host of injuries sustained by key players during pre-season, Watford are likely to line up in a 4-4-2 formation. The traditional footballing set-up has been a favourite of head coach Javi Gracia’s throughout his managerial career, and was a pivotal part of his impressive success with Malaga from 2014 to 2016.
The two banks of four will be hard to break down, while an expected strike partnership of Troy Deeney and Andre Gray will prove to be a demanding physical challenge for Brighton’s defence.
Meanwhile, history would suggest that Chris Hughton will opt for a similar formation: the 4-4-1-1. However, there is a major difference between this and the 4-4-2, and that is the attacking midfielder. The “number 10” will create a physical link between the midfielders and the lone forward, allowing more chances to be created while sacrificing the natural finishing ability of a traditional striker.
Both teams will utilise inverted wingers, but in contrasting ways. Due to the absence of former Barcelona and Everton speedster Gerard Deulofeu, Watford will be short on pace, with Will Hughes expected to take the Spaniard’s side on the right flank and Roberto Pereyra on the other. They will act almost as wide midfielders, dribbling inside with the ball before feeding the overlapping full-backs in order to reach the byline and produce a cross — something Deulofeu could do by himself.
Brighton’s wingers will be more focused on direct goal contribution. Anthony Knockaert and new signing Alireza Jahanbakhsh will pick the ball up on the edge of the area before shifting onto their stronger foot and either taking a shot at goal or playing a killer ball into the area in order to create a goalscoring opportunity.
Controlling the midfield
The midfield battle is crucial in this game, and could be the factor that separates the winning and losing team. Both sides are stacking the centre of the park with their two-by-four formations, which will make gaining and maintaining control an arduous task.
Watford’s four midfielders will assemble in a line, which will shuffle from side to side according to the position of the ball on the pitch. While this is renowned for bringing defensive stubbornness, Brighton have the potential to break down Watford’s entire midfield with a solitary pass into their attacking midfielder, who will likely find numerous pockets of space between the Hornets’ defence and midfield without a physical link joining the two together.
Watford can counter this by man-marking the Seagulls’ striker with both their central defenders, which will nullify the immediate threat posed by their opponents.
Watford’s main aim will be to play the long ball to the two strikers, in the hope that one will knock the ball down well enough to create a clear-cut chance for the other. This is effectively trying to bypass both banks of four in one go.
On the other hand, Brighton will look to exploit the position of the attacking midfielder between Watford’s midfield and defence, which will result in a more patient build up where the ball remains closer to the ground at all times.
Both styles are functional in their own way. The long-ball tactic employed by Watford may have a lower success rate for every attempt, however the continuous bombardment of balls into the penalty area will cause lapses of concentration in the Brighton defence which, if the strikers are clinical enough, could be fatal.
Brighton’s slower tempo will allow each and every pass to be more calculated and more precise, however the opposition defence will have more time to organise themselves in order to thwart the oncoming attack.