As City travel to Watford on Tuesday, it’s getting busy in the Premier League. A mid-week fixture is the perfect time to ponder the potential limits of two squads who have been successful relative to their goals so far, but who may have some difficulties with fixture congestion.
Despite a loss to Leicester at the weekend, Watford have to be pretty happy with their performances so far this season. Per Twelve’s xG timeline, through 13 games they’ve had less xG in a game than their opponents just five times this season, and that was to Spurs, Liverpool, Manchester United, Fulham (shockingly), and Bournemouth (courtesy of an early red card to Christian Kabasele).
City’s visit to Vicarage Road is the start of a tough stretch for the Hornets though, and not just because they have to figure out a way to stop the best team in the league. The crowded fixture list in December is likely to take a tough toll on a squad that hasn’t seen much rotation through the first third of the season, particularly in the spine of the team.
The defensive midfield pairing of Abdolaye Doucoure and Etienne Capoue have missed just 90 minutes in total, though the latter will be out of the City game following his red card against Leicester.
That would be a big loss, as the duo’s ability to limit opponents’ passing through the center of the pitch has been a key feature of their success. In fact, both feature in the top 25 in the league of Twelve’s defensive rating.
As a result, Watford have done very well to limit opponents’ shots thus far, ranking fourth in the league, while still keeping the quality of shots below average. Being in the same quadrant as City, Chelsea, and Liverpool is obviously a positive reflection of their performance so far.
In attack, Watford play similarly narrow. Their 4-2-2-2 formation with Will Hughes and Roberto Pereyra both tucking in as attacking midfielders means more of their attacks go through the middle of the pitch than any other team per Whoscored.
As a result, I think it will be difficult for Watford to make too much progress in this one. City can get burned down the flanks, particularly if their first-choice full-backs aren’t playing, but attempting to pass through the middle is a different proposition. Whichever pairing of strikers Javier Gracia chooses, their hold-up play will also be critically important if Watford are to gain a foothold in the game.
On the defensive side, I bet Watford will struggle more than usual. Even if Watford are successful at preventing City from moving through the middle, City’s wingers are more than capable of having the attack run through them, as they proved against Bournemouth. I’d expect whichever of Sterling, Sané, and Mahrez start to have similar success this time around.
For City, the main question then is how much can Pep rotate without having an impact on the squad? The weekend match against Chelsea looms on the horizon, so this would seem an appropriate time to give Fernandinho a break. City’s lynchpin in midfield has played all but 37 minutes this season despite being the oldest squad regular at 33.
The backup for Fernandinho’s role remains unsettled after City did not end up signing potential replacements Fred and Jorginho, who ended up joining Premier League rivals. Any internal alternative would therefore be someone with limited game action in the role, whether Delph, Stones, Gundogan, or anyone else takes it.
Pep himself admitted the need for resting Fernandinho, stating “We can play him but we’re going to kill him for next season.” As the fixtures pile up, making sure that Fernandinho is rested enough to keep him healthy is critically important.
For both City and Watford then, it will be interesting to see how their squads hold up to the season’s stress. By itself, this game won’t tell us much about the relative strength of the two teams, but it could well show who’s going to have a happier Christmas.