A well rested West Ham look to be bounce back after a devastating two points dropped against West Brom two weeks ago. In a clash of two underperforming big spenders, the Irons will match up against Watford, who have disappointed under Walter Mazzarri this season.
The draw West Ham earned in the last round of fixtures would normally be a strong result--Tony Pulis’ team are flying high this season--but the manner in which the game turned, a last minute header from Jonny Evans, was heart wrenching. To make matters worse, the goal was especially flukey, coming off the back of not one, but two questionable refereeing decisions. Nonetheless, it’s this sorts of rebound matches that show a team's spine, and a squad of Watford’s quality should prove a real test.
The game will be a chance for both teams to play their mid-season reinforcements, and two of Watford’s new men will hold particular interest to West Ham fans. Mauro Zarate will hear the refrain of We’re always blowing bubbles for the first time since his up and down run with the Hammers ended just over a year ago. Another new forward, M’Baye Niang, was heavily linked with West Ham over the transfer window, but elected to join the Hornets instead.
Watford are, somewhat surprisingly, floundering a bit this season. The introduction of a back three flopped, and the attack floundered. The team has looked exactly like what it is, a set of talented players signed with no eye towards a system, lumped together in bizarre formations.
Last week, Watford took on Manchester United, and lost 2-0. The team played an extremely defensive lineup, with four center backs and three defensive minded midfielder, in a fluid formation. Gomes, as usual, manned the goalkeeping position, with the partnership of Prodl and Kaboul ahead of him. Miguel Britos was forced out to left back, and Craig Cathcart played on the right.
Jose Holebas played a role similar to the one Michail Antonio featured in earlier this season, pushing high on the left, but featuring as something approaching a wing back on defense. Tom Cleverley and Etienne Capoue formed a defensive midfield partnership, while Zarate and Niang flanked Deeney.
The result was a bad one for Watford, and continued struggles could see the trigger happy Hornets ownership start to get twitchy. For that reason, it’s likely that a few changes will be made. Beyond that, we know that Prodl and Cathcart are injury doubts for the match. For that reason, expect to see Daryl Janmaat move in at right back, while Adrian Mariappa could get a rare run out if injuries necessitate his involvement.
The big news going into this game is that Andy Carroll could still be out after suffering a groin injury several weeks ago. In his stead, the fluid team of Snodgrass, Lanzini, Feghouli, and Antonio will alternate the role up front, with Antonio likely to bear the brunt of the hard work.
Manuel Lanzini will likely take up the number ten position, pushing high up the pitch and taking advantage of the space Antonio creates. On the wings, Snodgrass and Feghouli will provide width, direct running, and a goal threat. It’s on attack that, on paper at least, looks quite potent.
Watford’s static defenders could struggle with the mobility of West Ham’s attacking force if Lanzini is in the mood, and should the wings provide adequate service, the match could swing to the Hammers.
With Feghouli and Snodgrass providing hard defensive work in addition to decent attacking play, the central midfield partnership of Obiang and Noble has found things easier in recent weeks. In the last few matches, the pair appear to have found something approaching a chemistry, and this game could be the match where things click into place.
Against Watford’s two man midfield of Capoue and Cleverly, the triangle of Lanzini, Obiang, and Noble should always have an extra man. All three are capable creators, and frankly, unless Watford pull a tactical surprise, the team has no excuse for anything less than sustained attacking pressure.
A key point in this game will be the workrate of Lanzini. With Antonio closing down the Center Backs, a large stretch of the field will be left under the guard of the Argentine. The midfield battle could be decided by how hard Lanzini works on defense.
Darren Randolph is a lock to continue in goal, while the pairing of Reid and Fonte should remain unchanged. The three were all at fault for the final goal against West Brom, but players of their experience shouldn’t let a mistake get to them. It is on the flanks that intrigue is high, with Kouyate, Byram, Cresswell and Masuaku battling poor form and fitness in a race to start.
At right back, Byram should start if he is recovered from his injuries, relegating Kouyate to the bench after a nightmare performance against West Brom. It is clear the versatile Senegal captain is a midfielder or a centerback, not a full back. On the other flank, Aaron Cresswell deserves to be dropped after a run of shaky games. The question is whether Masuaku, just recovered from injury, is ready to be thrust into the starting lineup so soon.
All things considered, expect Byram to return to the starting lineup, but Masuaku to stay on the bench. It is doubtful Bilic would risk two injured full backs, especially against the lively wingers of Niang and Zarate.
Prediction: West Ham 2-1 Watford
Hammers games in recent months, the thrashing against City aside, have shown promise. Form has especially picked up since the departure of Dimitri Payet. Watford are stuck in a middling run of form, beating Arsenal one game only to lose against Millwall the next. So much rides on how impressive the new players for both teams are.
Given the form of West Ham over the past matches, I see this game as a turning point in the season. A loss would all but end the Iron’s hopes to snag a Europa league spot. A victory however, could be the spark the team needs to start a run of form. With that in mind, I expect a hard fought match that will come down to individual moments of magic.