When Tottenham Hotspur and Watford last met in October, Watford were floundering. Winless in the Premier League under Quique Sanchez Flores (his second stint at the club), Watford had only three points after its first eight matches and had scored only four goals in that time. They looked as though they couldn’t string two passes together and were assuredly heading for the drop.
Luckily for them, they had the fortune to come to the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium to play a Spurs club that itself was floundering under Mauricio Pochettino. Spurs had just come off of a 3-0 loss at Brighton that had seen their club captain Hugo Lloris injured in the 8th minute, and themselves looked adrift as they tried to adjust to an aging team that was starting to give up on Mauricio Pochettino.
We know what happened in that match — Abedoulaye Doucoure scored in the sixth minute, and Spurs, looking mostly toothless, were lucky to get the equalizing goal in the 86th after a defensive error and a Dele goal that seemed to go in off his shoulder. The goal held up on VAR, though Spurs were probably fortunate not to drop all three points on the day.
Since then, both clubs have fired their manager and hired repalcements — Watford have reorganized under former Leicester boss Nigel Pearson, and he has seemingly revitalized a team that was on life support. Watford have won four out of their last five games, including home wins over Manchester United, Aston Villa, and Wolves, an away win over floundering Bournemouth, and a tough draw at Sheffield. They have gone from the basement to outside of the relegation zone and have a head of confidence coming into Saturday’s early match against Spurs.
So what’s the difference? You can talk about “new manager bounce,” “instilling belief,” “determination,” “leadership” and all those hoary chestnuts, and all of them may well be at least partially true. But Pearson has also made some tactical tweaks to his Watford side, none more important than moving Doucoure into a more advanced position where he can contribute better to the attack. Deployed on the left in a defensive 5-3-2 under Sanchez Flores, Pearson has shifted Watford into a more continental 4-2-3-1, with Doucoure in the hole behind recently-returned Troy Deeney, operating more as a box-to-box midfielder. That has also allowed Gerard Deulofeu more freedom to cut in from the left flank from a deeper position.
It’s worked. Doucoure has two goals and an assist in his last two games, Watford have netted 11 times to their opponents’ two (with the “Three Ds” of Deeney, Deulofeu combining for nine of them), and Watford are looking less like relegation fodder and more like the mid-table side that they probably are. That’s bad news for Tottenham — Watford will welcome Spurs to Vicarage Road with a wealth of confidence, while Spurs have just one win in their last five league matches. This is not a team languishing at the bottom of the Premier League table. This is a confident Watford team playing at home with the wind at their back, taking on a Spurs team without a few of its stars. If you’re anticipating an easy match, better change your expectations.
How will Tottenham line up against Watford?
The past two Tottenham lineups have been interesting, if not super informative. Yes, we have seen the emergence of Japhet Tanganga in the back line and the return of Danny Rose in a loss to Liverpool and an FA Cup win over Middlesbrough. We have also seen players like Erik Lamela and Giovani Lo Celso come in and play very well for Spurs. But with the matches still coming thick and fast, it’s not yet clear whether those three players are guaranteed starters quite yet.
Let’s start with what we know. Jose Mourinho said in his pre-match press conference that both Christian Eriksen and new signing Gedson Fernandes will be involved in the match. Of those two, I think it’s more likely that we see Eriksen in the staring XI and Fernandes on the bench, unless Jose is ready to roll the dice. Eric Dier played against Middlesbrough so it’s tempting to consider a midfield pairing of Harry Winks and Christian Eriksen, but considering the other players available, I suspect Dier will retain his place with Winks beside him. I wouldn’t be surprised if Gedson comes in off the bench for one of them, however.
Likewise, Tanganga has had good performances as a weird defensive right back, but after playing against both Liverpool and Boro, I predict Serge Aurier to come back into the side against Watford. Davinson Sanchez, meanwhile, will need to shake off his bad match in the FA Cup; it’s also possible that Jan Vertonghen comes back in beside Toby Alderweireld for this one. I’m also predicting Ryan Sessegnon ahead of Danny Rose.
In front, the rest of the team picks itself. Eriksen, Dele, and Son Heung-Min will play in a fluid attacking band in front of Lucas Moura, who will operate more as a false 9 than a true striker. Lo Celso, having played a hard 90 (referenced by Mou in the presser), will start on the bench, but could come in as a late sub.
It’ll be interesting to see if they can generate offense against a suddenly stingy Watford defense. With league games coming up against Norwich, Manchester City, and Villa, Spurs need all the points they can get if they’re to salvage something halfway decent out of this season.
That’s my predicted lineup for Tottenham at Watford. What’s yours?