Tactics writer Sam Tighe takes a closer look at how Southampton can come out on top from their Premier League meeting with Watford in the latest addition of Tactical Watch, in association with Utilita Energy...
Sunday sees Southampton travel to Vicarage Road to take on a Watford side desperately in need of both a performance and points.
Fighting bitterly against the threat of relegation, the Hornets’ first two appearances back from the break have yielded just a single point and a single goal, meaning they’ll be eyeing this match as a chance to get three on the board and establish that all-important momentum.
In turn, Ralph Hasenhüttl’s men will look to play the part of spoiler - just as they did against fellow relegation strugglers Norwich City last Friday.
Here, we take a look at three keys to this matchup and how it will be decided.
The danger man
With Gerard Deulofeu out for the season with an ACL injury, Watford now look to Ismaïla Sarr as their attacking spark and difference-maker.
He’s an electric player on his day – something Saints found out first-hand in this season’s first meeting between the two clubs – who combines speed, directness and potency in potentially devastating form.
In Watford’s first game back Sarr had the beating of Leicester City’s Ben Chilwell, consistently slipping past him and firing in crosses.
In the second game back, though, against Burnley, the Hornets struggled to get the ball to Sarr as close attention was paid; he managed just 28 touches – the lowest of any player to play 90 minutes – and the direct result of that was a blunting of Watford in attack.
Saints will draw lessons from that game. It’s not as simple “stop Sarr, stop Watford,” but he is their biggest outlet and when he’s not affecting games, the Hornets’ other routes to goal have underwhelmed.
A stern central test
It may seem a jarring statement given Watford’s precarious position in the Premier League table, but they house one of the division's finer central midfield pairings in Étienne Capoue and Abdoulaye Doucouré.
The French duo are notoriously difficult to play against on their day, setting a physical platform in midfield that, in the past, has led to some robust and dominant performances from the Hornets.
Capoue stands one of the more underrated players in the league; as holding No. 6s go, he’s up with some of the best in England and can make Watford very difficult to wrestle with.
Doucouré’s form has sloped off this season, but his runs through the centre and into the opposing box are difficult to deal with and must be tracked vigilantly.
Combined, they make Watford a handful; an obstinate opponent that are hard to sink your teeth into fully. It will no doubt be a physical, intense test for Southampton’s midfield selection.
Ings vs Dawson
Watford’s slow start out of the break has generated few feel-good storylines, but one they can at least point to is the good form of centre-back Craig Dawson.
A huge presence in both boxes, his late goal from a set-piece against Leicester earned the Hornets a point, while his defensive showings in that game and against Burnley stood out.
On Sunday he could come face to face with a lively, sharp Danny Ings, who has looked good in both of Saints’ matches so far.
It’s set to be Watford and Dawson’s biggest test yet, with Ings’s teasing movements and clever touches – in addition to a natural eye for goal – making him a perplexing problem for defences to deal with.
It’s these movements, both across the front line and dropping deep in the centre, that make him so slippery.
They give centre-backs difficult decisions to make in tracking and marking – should they stay, or should they follow? – and it only takes one misjudgement for a big gap to appear.
It’s a very different proposition to what Dawson and co. have already faced – constant runs in behind from Jamie Vardy, then aerial duels for crosses vs Burnley – and how they handle it will play a big part in the result.