15:00 BST, Saturday 28th October, Vicarage Road (Watford, England)
For the second time in as many seasons, Marco Silva has improved his Premier League reputation as he has the Hornets flying high in 6th position after nine games. Their blend of exciting, attacking football has had neutrals willing this years dark-horses onwards. However, much of this excitement has been generated by a haphazard defence which has conceded 14 goals in the last 5 matches. Watford have only managed to beat Stoke once in their previous Premier League meetings, with three straight defeats coming from their most recent fixtures.
Stoke may be languishing near the foot of the table with only 8 points from their first 9 games. However, at this stage last year they had only collected three points with a mere three goals scored along the way. Their problems this year have arisen at the opposite end of the pitch, having conceded more goals (20) than any other Premiership side. 16 of these goals have come during this period, with Stoke losing four of their last five league games. Mark Hughes now has to find a way to reverse this slide and head back for the safe shores of mid-table.
Last Time Out
Chelsea 4-2 Watford (Premier League)
One of the most entertaining, see-sawing games of the season unfolded during the second-half of this game as Watford were eventually beaten by the current champions Chelsea. Watford played a lot of neat football before the interval but found themselves unable to break Chelsea’s back line as the Blues stood firm on the edge of their box. A spectacular goal from Abdoulaye Doucouré right at the end of the first half sent the teams back to the dressing room level.
Watford carried this momentum into the second half. Following a mix up from all of six yards out, Richarlison then created an assist for Roberto Pereyra in the 49th minute as Watford poured attack after attack into the Blues penalty area. Chelsea were clearly rattled but, despite creating chances, a third goal proved elusive for Watford. With legs tiring, Chelsea composed themselves and targeted the left-back area.
Enter Michy Batshuayi. Coming on to replace the still-injured Alvaro Morata, within 10 minutes he had scored with a powerful header past Heurelho Gomes. When Cesar Azpilicueta popped up at the back post in the 87th minute to put Chelsea ahead, the game had been turned completely on its head. Three Chelsea goals in the last 20 minutes was a bitter pill for Watford to swallow but in failing to take their chances early in the second half, they only had themselves to blame for not wrapping up all three points.
Stoke 1-2 Bournemouth (Premier League)
If Mark Hughes was looking for a reaction from his team following their 7-2 drubbing against Manchester City, he didn’t find it during the first half at the Britannia last weekend. Defeat to the Cherries meant Stoke slipped into the bottom three of the table as two goals in as many minutes was enough to seal their fate.
Having slumped to a two-goal lead inside the first 18 minutes, Stoke rallied after the break as they finally got the ball to the feet of their forward players. Despite some nimble footwork from Jesé Rodríguez down the left wing and a goal from Mame Biram Diouf in his third successive match, Stoke were largely unable to translate their improvements into anything with a substantial end-product. It was also potentially worrying that Stoke’s biggest threat is still the aerial threat provided by Peter Crouch, despite all of the expensively assembled talent surrounding the 36-year-old on the pitch.
Nathaniel Chalobah (knee), Sebastian Prödl (hamstring), Younes Kaboul (leg),Craig Cathcart (knee) and Isaac Success (knee) are all still sidelined for the Hornets. Marco Silva’s biggest decision will be in choosing between Troy Deeney and Andre Gray in attack, while a niggling injury to Roberto Pereyra could see André Carrillo return to the right wing.
Bruno Martins Indi is the only major injury concern for Mark Hughes with the Dutchman slowly recovering from a groin problem. However, Xherdan Shaqiri will require a late fitness test as he continues to recover from an ankle problem which could see the promising talent of Ramadan Sobhi given another chance to impress for the Potters.
Key Battle: Abdoulaye Doucouré (Watford) vs Darren Fletcher (Stoke City)
The centre of the pitch always provides a key battle in any game but this game sees two solid, all-action heroes pitted against each other. Abdoulaye Doucouré is starting to reap the praise his consistent displays have merited, both defensively and as an attacking threat. With an average passing rate of 88%, each of his four shots in target beating the keeper and only two shots being off the mark, there’s a high level of accuracy about everything that the Frenchman does.
On the opposing team is a player who will be making his 101st consecutive Premiers appearance if picked this weekend. Not only is Darren Fletcher consistent, he is also the heart and soul of whichever team he plays for and it was no surprise that Alex Ferguson rated him so highly during his time spent in Manchester. With Stoke struggling to get a grip on their recent games, Fletcher’s presence is needed more than ever this weekend.
A Rising Star
After many puzzled faces met the news that Marco Silva was to take over at Hull City last January, there was very little for the young Portuguese manager to lose in making his move to the Premier League. Despite the Tigers being relegated less than five months later, Silva had gained the respect of everyone who saw his side go down fighting from an almost impossible position. A shock move to Watford later and Silva is already being touted as one of the favourites for the vacant Everton job, despite his short time in Hertfordshire.
With Mark Hughes receiving the dreaded vote of confidence from his chairman this week, it’s almost heartening to know that some managers are still seeing their careers take an upward trajectory in the Premier League. Promise and potential are certainly good labels to be given but it remains to be seen just how high this new star can rise in the footballing world.
A New Branding
During Tony Pulis’ time in the Stoke dugout, everyone knew what to expect from a game against the Potters. Mark Hughes has now been in charge for almost four and a half years and while this team definitely has his stamp on their style, it’s a watered-down style which lacks a strength in identity they once possessed.
With his sights set on creating a passing style that is largely at odds with the team he inherited, it was certainly an ambitious project. Stoke are currently the cleanest team in the division with only 8 yellow cards against their name. However, they also have the second lowest average possession (42.7%) in the league which makes their passing style a little harder to achieve. If Hughes is to continue this transformation, he needs to find some tangible qualities amongst his squad to use as a foundation to construct a new identity which the opposition can fear.
Prediction: Watford 3-1 Stoke City
Goals should be expected from this fixture with both teams guilty of poor defensive records despite being equally capable of scoring themselves. Mark Hughes is inching closer to a critical point in his time at the club after much of the goodwill he’s earned has slowly eroded away. He does, though, have a solid record of turning the team around at this point in the season. For Watford, the fairytale should continue this weekend as they have a clever tactical manager and plenty of players entering the fixture in sky-high form.
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