A pair of clubs out to prove they have staying power collide at Molineux on Saturday when new boys Wolverhampton look to continue their surprising form against a Watford side hoping the international break provided an opportunity to regroup.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
The Hornets (4-1-3) were the talk of the Premier League ahead of the first international break, winning their first four league matches and first five overall. But Javy Gracia’s side staggered into this most recent recess, taking just one point from their previous four contests and getting bounced from the Carabao Cup.
Wolves (4-3-1), meanwhile, are unbeaten in their last eight matches (5-3-0) in all competitions and have greatly aided their bid to stay up by taking points from both Manchester sides in the early going. Wolverhampton have conceded just two goals during their unbeaten run and have shown a flair for coming on late – 10 of their 11 goals in all competitions have come after the interval.
Nuno Espirito Santo’s side, though, is unlike most promoted clubs as Wolves have quality throughout their lineup thanks to its heavy Portuguese tilt. Instead of simply pining for survival, seventh-place Wolverhampton could join a select group of promoted teams who finish in the top half of the table, a feat achieved last term by Newcastle United. The Magpies were just the fourth club to accomplish the feat since 2000, with the high-water mark achieved by eighth-place Reading in 2006-07.
“Wolves are an ambitious project and I want this kind of ambition, this kind of project. The club, the team, the staff wants to go on to the next level and I came to help this situation,” midfielder Joao Moutinho told Wolverhampton’s official website. “It is unbelievable what they did and how good they played last year, and I think with the new players it can help the team to achieve more things.
“We need to continue to do the good work because the most important thing is to think we can stay good, but we need to work more and more to improve, because we know the next game is very difficult.”
Before the break, Wolverhampton accomplished a Premier League first with an unchanged starting XI through their first eight matches. That chemistry is apparent considering eight different players have scored in league play and striker Raul Jimenez is the only Wolves player with more than one goal.
“In Portugal many people didn’t understand our move,” winger Diogo Jota said. Not just me but (Ruben) Neves as well, but we are here now and the people that said things now understand. Of course it was a risk because it wasn’t a shortcut to reach the Premier League, but in the end it was a good move.
“Nuno brought a new identity to the club, even for me the system is different. Before last season I never played in the system with five at the back, but he brought a way to live football which is completely different.”
Wolves’ six goals shipped are fourth-fewest in the league, trailing only co-leaders Manchester City (3), Chelsea (3) and Liverpool (5).
While Watford were unlucky at times in their second quartet of league matches, there was no argument they were given a thrashing before the break as Bournemouth stormed to a 4-0 victory at Vicarage Road a fortnight ago. The Hornets were already down one when Christian Kabasele picked up his second yellow on 32 minutes, resulting in a penalty Joshua King converted.
But there was little fight to Watford after switching to a back three to compensate for Kabasele’s departure as the Cherries scored right before and right after intermission. That left Gracia and his players to stew for two weeks, deliberating tweaks to tactics and personnel for Watford’s 4-2-2-2 formation.
“A lot of the boys are away on international duty and I think the break might do us good,” striker Andre Gray told the club’s official website. “Sometimes you just need to take your mind off it and start again. I think everybody will be ready to come back next week, get their heads down and start again. We need to put it right.”
Some of those players representing their countries put their best boots forward as Roberto Pereyra scored his first goal for Argentina and Nathaniel Chalobah became the first Watford player to represent England since 1987 in earning his first cap.
Kabasele’s absence to serve his red-card ban further thins a back line already without injured right back Daryl Janmaat. Adrian Mariappa likely will take Kabasele’s place in central defence, while Kiko Femenia should retain his spot deputising for Janmaat.
This is the first Premier League match between the teams, who have not met since a 2-2 draw at Molineux in the Championship during the 2014-15 season. Both clubs have 13 wins in the all-time series while splitting the points in the remaining 18 matchups. Watford have just one win in their last 17 trips (1-11-5) to Wolverhampton.
Per Ladbrokes, oddsmakers are respecting both the form and quality of Wolves, installing them as 3/4 favourites to claim all three points. Watford are 19/5 longshots to end their winless drought, and there are 5/2 odds for the sides to split the points.
There are 2/1 odds for Wolverhampton to win with a total of more than 2.5 goals, but the hosts’ defence makes a victory and under 2.5 goals a near-equal pick at 27/10 odds. A 0-0 or 1-1 draw is the next-most likely option according to oddsmakers at 16/5, while Watford offer an 8/1 return on either total with a victory.
Jimenez leads the line for potential first goal-scorers at 4/1, followed by Wolves teammates Leo Bonatini (5/1), Jota, Helder Costa and Ivan Cavaleiro (6/1) and Adam Traore (7/1). Oddsmakers are not showing much love for Watford’s offence as top options Troy Deeney and Andre Gray are 9/1, well back of the no goal-scorer choice (7/1).
Jimenez (6/4) and Bonatini (15/8) are the only players on either team with better than 2/1 odds to score at any point during the match, with Jota just off it at 21/10 while Costa and Cavaleiro are joint 9/4. Deeney is rated slightly higher than Gray for the Hornets, checking in at 16/5 over Gray’s 10/3.
Well, the first flavor of the month in the Premier League is facing the current flavor of the month. Yet unlike Watford, it currently appears Wolverhampton does have that staying power the Hornets were hoping to find coming out of the previous international break.
The primary reason why is defence. Of course, few promoted teams stumble upon getting a No. 1 keeper who also is the No. 1 for their national team, and in addition to having Rui Patricio between the sticks, there is the added chemistry value of Wolves doubling as the de facto Portugal squad. Since the idle mind is the devil’s playground, one could also wonder if such a heavy contingent of Portuguese players is also turning this into an audition for Nuno to be the national coach if Portugal falters at the Euros.
But that is still a while away. Back to the present, and on the other side, Watford needed this break as much as they did not need the first one. The Hornets will be down two defenders in the injured Janmaat and suspended Kabasele, which puts additional pressure on holding midfielders Etienne Capoue and Abdoulaye Doucoure to keep the spine steady.
The Hornets have gone nearly three full matches without a goal in league play — Gray’s marker in the second minute of their draw at Fulham stands as their most recent one — and he’s also the only Watford player to score in the last four league contests. The hope is Pereyra’s performances with Argentina during the break will translate into a renewed aggressiveness from the early part of the season when he formed a menacing tandem with Jose Holebas on the left.
One of the interesting things about Wolverhampton is how little faze them. They have led for just 123 minutes all season — they have actually been behind (136 minutes) more than they have been ahead — which is a testament to a solid defence and picking their spots to counter. Watford may be more competitive in this match than they were struggling into the break, but Wolverhampton’s form and track record at home versus the Hornets is too much to turn from.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: WOLVERHAMPTON 2, Watford 0.
OTHER MATCH DAY 9 PREVIEWS:
Chelsea (6-2-0) vs. Manchester United (4-1-3)
Manchester City (6-2-0) vs. Burnley (2-2-4)
West Ham United (2-1-5) vs. Tottenham Hotspur (6-0-2)
Arsenal (6-0-2) vs. Leicester City (4-0-4)