Can Watford rain on Manchester City's treble parade?
Background photo: David Hawgood, CC BY-SA 2.0
Due to their dominance, Manchester City head into the FA Cup final as overwhelming favourites to complete an unprecedented domestic treble. Pep Guardiola’s oil-rich Citizens claimed the Carabao Cup in February with penalty-shootout success over Chelsea side amid a hilariously bizarre coup attempt by goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga. Back-to-back Premier League titles were secured last weekend with an away win at Brighton that saw off a down-to-the-wire challenge from Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool.
A single game on a second trip to Wembley will decide whether the best team money can buy can write a new chapter in English footballing history. Javi Gracia’s Watford are the side tasked with preserving tradition. It’s far from an easy job but the Hornets are certainly capable.
How should they set up?
Gracia’s flexible 4-4-2 serves him well at Vicarage Road although the Spaniard has deviated to a more defensive 4-3-1-2 in recent weeks with a mixed bag of results. It worked like a charm in the Wembley semi-final win over Wolves but was horribly exploited by West Ham on the final day.
Tinkering isn't worth the risk against City. First, the squad doesn't need the uncertainty against the Sky Blues. Second, a back four Daryl Janmaat and Jose Holebas willing to get forward to support the attack from the flanks can cause problems for Guardiola. The Greek left-back is available after the FA upheld his red card appeal.
Abdoulaye Doucoure and Etienne Capoue add tempered French steel to the midfield. They're masters of running at defenders with the ball and equally adept at providing cover at the back when Janmaat and Holebas go on their sorties.
Troy Deeney’s physical presence troubles most defences. He’ll need a partner to expose Vincent Kompany and Aymeric Laporte though. The Belgian and the French Basque are among the best in the business and can both match the Englishman for strength.
Andre Gray is Deeney's usual partner in crime, but Isaac Success could be selected to add raw pace. That is something neither centre-half can match.
What City weaknesses can they exploit?
Finding a weakness in Guardiola's side is more difficult than proving a Financial Fair Play violation but Gracia may look to exploit Oleksandr Zinchenko. The Ukrainian is a fine young player and a manager’s favourite. He isn’t a natural left back but performs admirably in that position when covering for the perennially injured Benjamin Mendy.
Playing in a side always on the front foot protects him. Pressure him, however, and he becomes anxious, diving into challenges, putting himself out of position.
So for Watford, the right side is key. Considering his opponent’s attacking prowess, Gracia may be tempted to start Janmaat at right back with Kiko Femenia in front of the Dutchman on the wing. Both are defensively inclined and can double-team Leroy Sane.
While a good tactic in theory, it allows Zinchenko onto the front foot and doesn’t put him under any real pressure. Instead, the Hornets must start with Gerard Deulofeu. The Spaniard changed the game when he came on in the last round. The Spaniard almost single-handedly tore the win out from Wolves’ grasp to send his side to Wembley.
A product of Barcelona’s revered La Masia youth setup, he is lively, energetic and a real handful when running at defenders. The stuff of nightmares for young Zinchenko.
His presence could force Laporte to spend more time helping his teammate, freeing Deeney to hassle Kompany in the middle. The Belgian is still a terrific defender but isn’t as mobile as he once was. A runner from deep joining Deeney could overload the defence and give the Hertfordshire club opportunities to cause some real problems.
Gracia must be brave
In the end, it could all hinge on the risks the Watford boss is willing to take. Against Manchester City, you can never afford to take too many. There is arguably no better side in the world at punishing mistakes.
Bearing this in mind, too many managers approach games against Manchester City too negatively. They focus so much on containing threats that they cause none of their own. With no distractions, the Sky Blues eventually find a way through regardless.
Benching Deulofeu in favour of a containing approach would be counterproductive. Watford would lose their greatest advantage with no promise of extra defensive stability. Gracia would be taking a spoon to a gunfight.
Nor is fatigue their friend. Pep’s players have been embroiled in a Premier League title fight for the ages but their final game of the season comes after a week's rest and preparation. Pep needn't keep anyone in reserve. City will give everything. Watford must match them.
Manchester City will head into the FA Cup final as comfortable favourites to take home the trophy. Watford have as good a chance as anyone to stop them if they play without fear.