Watford have benefited from a clarity of thought under Marco Silva but they face the original thinker in Manchester City's Pep Guardiola
Watford and City are two of the Premier League’s remaining three unbeaten teams
There are 34 kilometres from Selhurst Park to Vicarage Road. It is a short distance, altogether shorter than the 16 places that separate Crystal Palace from Watford. It has a certain pertinence, and not merely because Palace were promoted at Watford’s expense in 2013.
They competed for the services of Marco Silva in the summer. Perhaps surprisingly, Watford, the lower finishers, the less established Premier League club, the outfit who seemed to change managers even more often, won. Perhaps they also saw off Southampton, who had an interest in the precocious Portuguese but dawdled in sacking Claude Puel.
Palace face Southampton on Saturday in contest of clubs Silva could have managed. Southampton have scored one league goal in open play. Palace have none of any variety. Watford, meanwhile, have seven and sit fourth, the surprise interlopers in a leading group featuring the Manchester clubs, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur.
Watford have also taken up a top-half station in the early stages of the past two seasons before relapsing, but it still represents an impressive turnaround. They lost their final five games of the last campaign, culminating in a shambolic showing when Manchester City won 5-0 at Vicarage Road in May.
The rematch should be more closely contested. Watford and City are two of the division’s remaining three unbeaten teams. Meanwhile, 34 kilometres further south, Palace begin a second managerial reign since Watford appointed Silva. The Portuguese used to be billed as a kind of mini-Mourinho. It may be more topical to brand him an anti-Frank de Boer, the antithesis of the man Palace subsequently chose and then sacked.
Silva’s Premier League experience amounted four months at Hull City, but a grounding in the division helped. He did not attempt to impose an alien style of play: rather the way British and foreign influences have been combined is apparent in the centre of midfield where summer signing Nathaniel Chalobah and Abdoulaye Doucoure have formed a physical, forceful partnership.
Whereas Palace did not keep a clean sheet under De Boer, Watford have three in as many games. The side’s solid citizens have provided a platform for the flair player Richarlison to show his skill and speed.
De Boer brought alien ideas. The success of Silva’s essentially orthodox game plan has meant his most revolutionary move, the sidelining of captain Troy Deeney, has been comparatively uncontroversial. Where Palace have had confusion and chaos, Watford have benefited from a clarity of thought.
Now they face an original thinker. Second-guessing Pep Guardiola is not easy. One relatively safe prediction is that he will choose Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus again. The South American pair scored three of the five goals at Vicarage Road in May and another three of the quintet against Liverpool on Saturday. Their chemistry has a potency.
Yet the last three games have illustrated the range of options at Guardiola’s disposal. The Catalan played 4-2-3-1 at Bournemouth, 3-5-2 against Liverpool and then 4-3-3 against Feyenoord. The last two have been won by an aggregate score of 9-0 but with dramatically different systems, albeit with a solitary switch in personnel: Bernardo Silva began in the Uefa Champions League in the Netherlands.
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It offered a solution to the problems of choice. Aguero and Jesus are making themselves indispensable. David Silva, Kevin de Bruyne and Fernandinho often flourish as a midfield trio. Bernardo may have only been the second best Silva on show in Rotterdam, but he was one of the Champions League’s outstanding players last season.
The fall guys have been the out-and-out wingers. Guardiola likes players who hug the touchlines to stretch the game but Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling have a solitary start apiece so far.
They give him decisions to make. Watford, and Silva, have got theirs right so far.
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Updated: September 15, 2017 01:37 PM