Preview: Watford

A win in midweek puts Coventry City out of the relegation zone and with a decent chance of even higher up the table by the time the league pauses for the World Cup. There is a mood of speculation and uncertainty off-the-pitch at this football club, but winning games goes a long way to calming the nerves of the fanbase. While things sort themselves out in that area, keeping the points ticking over is the number one priority.

An away trip to a recently-relegated Watford side in good recent form looks set to be one of the toughest tests Coventry City will face this season. With a chance that the Sky Blues could return to the bottom three with a defeat in this game, this shouldn’t be treated as a ‘free hit’ but the games in hand at least provide the team with the breathing room not to panic were they to lose here.

Expected Line-Up

Possible Line-Up (3-4-2-1): Wilson; Rose, McFadzean, Panzo; Eccles, Hamer, Sheaf, Bidwell; O'Hare, Allen; Gyokeres.

With the likelihood that last week’s illness in the camp will have completely cleared in time for this game, on top of the news that Gustavo Hamer’s injury-induced exit on Tuesday night was only due to a dead leg, Mark Robins will be able to avoid picking the makeshift team here that he has been forced to over the past two games.

One of the key decisions the manager faces is whether he brings back Kyle McFadzean to the defence, after an inexperienced backline kept a clean sheet in his absence in midweek. On the one hand, having a younger, quicker defence allowed Coventry City to be more proactive in their pressing game, with Callum Doyle and Jonathan Panzo making a number of important interventions when that press was breached. On the other, there were several errors of communication in the first-half on Tuesday night which would probably not have happened with McFadzean in the team. That leadership factor is likely to prevail heading into a tough away trip, with Callum Doyle the likeliest to make way for McFadzean’s return.

Elsewhere, Mark Robins may have to manage the workload of the midfield and attack as Coventry City head into the last week of a month-long run of Saturday-midweek-Saturday football. The manager hasn’t been averse in the past to dropping some of the team’s more important players for tough away games as he looks to keep them fresh for more winnable fixtures ahead. That could see players such as Viktor Gyokeres and Callum O’Hare taken out of the starting line-up here, however, that might be difficult given the lack of available replacements available to the manager.

Last Time We Met

Watford versus Coventry City in the Championship from two season ago, I know what you’re all thinking of. Yes, that 0-0 draw at St Andrew’s back in February of that season where literally nothing happened. Here you go, here’s the higlights.

The Opposition

The Manager – Slaven Bilic

With Watford appointing an up-and-coming young English manager over the summer, in Rob Edwards, and promising to build a long-term identity for the club, it was sadly inevitable what would happen next. After a slow, but by no means, terrible, start to the season, Edwards was dispensed with and replaced with Slaven Bilic as the club decided it would prefer to target immediate promotion over a long-term plan. Bilic, who, somehow, hasn’t managed Watford before, has quickly demonstrated the short-term wisdom of his appointment, with results quickly improving to put the team in the top six.

This might not be as strong a Watford team as the one that eventually cruised to promotion two years ago, but the improved form under Slaven Bilic has highlighted that they continue to have individual players that can win games with ease at this level of football. Bilic has, sensibly, built the team around getting the best out of players such as Joao Pedro and Ismaila Sarr, with the focus being on keeping things tight elsewhere to provide the platform for the attacking players’ to devastate opponents.

Who To Look Out For?

Possible Line-Up (4-2-3-1): Bachmann; Mario Gaspar, Troost-Ekong, Sierralta, Kamara; Gosling, Choudhury; Sema, Joao Pedro, Sarr; Davis.

Keeping hold of Joao Pedro and Ismaila Sarr was both a blessing and a curse for Watford, providing them with two attacking players that are far too good for the Championship at the cost of generating the funds (and easing the wage bill) in order to build a long-term identity under previous manager, Rob Edwards. Brazilian forward, Pedro, is a supremely talented all-round footballer who operates somewhere between a striker and number ten position and is starting to threaten the goal in the consistent manner that his natural talent would suggest he should. Winger, Sarr, who has been on the radar of some of England’s top clubs for a while now is a supremely quick, skilful and physical wide player who is basically a cheat code at Championship level with his ability to take multiple defenders out of the game.

There is further depth and quality in attacking areas for Watford that allows Slaven Bilic to rotate his options both between and within games. Ken Sema dovetails with Ismaila Sarr quite nicely on the opposite flank with his direct running. Colombian teenager, Yaser Asprilla, has caught the eye this season with several skilful interventions to create goals from the number ten role, often as a substitute. While Keinan Davis in attack showed last season at Nottingham Forest that he is one of the best all-round strikers in the Championship with his combination of physicality, skill on the ball and intelligence in linking the play.

The rest of the Watford team unit is largely made up of highly-experienced and physical pros that can keep things tight to allow those attacking players to do their thing. The possible return of Leicester City loanee, Hamza Choudhury, to sit in front of the defence would make Watford especially difficult to break down in this game, with Dan Gosling having impressed this season in the other holding midfield role.

At left-back, Hassane Kamara was one of few that impressed over the second half of last season’s campaign in the Premier League and is a positive option on the left side. Francisco Sierralta and Will Troost-Ekong is an imposing central defensive partnership, while Mario Gaspar at right-back is vastly experienced. Behind that defensive line, Daniel Bachmann in goal can pull off heroics when required, even if he hasn’t been on top form this season.

Where The Game Will Be Won Or Lost

One of the key factors heading into this game is whether Mark Robins is tempted to rest one or two key players as he looks to target the Wigan Athletic game coming on Tuesday, which would more or less guarantee that Coventry City would be out of the relegation zone by the time the World Cup comes around. Whether he does that will depend on how viable he sees the alternatives to starting players like Viktor Gyokeres, Callum O’Hare and Gustavo Hamer, but it wouldn’t be out of character for the Coventry City manager to make such a call.

The four attacking players that Watford line up with will be very difficult for the Sky Blues to contain if they are anywhere near their top form. Containing Ismaila Sarr alone would be difficult enough, especially as he attacks the space between wing-back and centre-back that can be difficult to pick up when playing with a back three, that Watford have Ken Sema, Joao Pedro and Keinan Davis to both draw attention away from Sarr and threaten in their own right could be too much for Coventry City’s defence to contain. It makes a compelling case to start with Kyle McFadzean for his physical presence, as well as to take the approach of sitting back and looking to limit the space in behind from which Watford’s attacking players will be at their most threatening.

This is likely to be a game where Coventry City will look to sit deep and wait for opportunities on the counter-attack. A large part of that plan being successful could come down to whether one or both of Viktor Gyokeres and Callum O’Hare start, given that they are the team’s best ball-carriers who can turn defence into attack. If Mark Robins decides to rest both of them, any chance of nicking a goal somewhere in this match would become significantly lower.

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