Those of us at Carrow Road on Saturday, watching the players out on their feet at the final whistle after repelling the inevitably-launched kitchen sink from Everton, were at least glad of one thing. At least Watford have to play again before we play them so they’ll be even more knackered than us.
So, inevitably in this season where once again Dame Fortune has her stiletto firmly plonked on our testicles, it came to pass that COVID once again got in the way of the slightest positive we might take.
So to Friday, and a trip to a rested and ready Watford side freshly buoyed by three new signings who all made their debuts at the weekend and will have had their first full week of training now under their belts. Oh to be able to make signings.
Claudio Ranieri, ever the tinkerer, has yet to settle upon a tried and trusted formation since he took over the reins at Watford in November. While he has switched between 4-1-4-1, 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2 at times in a bid to find the right formula for a Watford side struggling for form, he has gone with 4-3-3 for the last two games, and you would think with the three new players all starting last time out against Newcastle, he may go with that again to give them some stability.
In goal YouTube’s Ben Foster™ started the last game, but until then promising Austrian Daniel Bachmann had been the starter.
At right-back, Ranieri has vacillated between popular Spaniard Kiko Femenia and youngster Jeremy Ngakia and neither has yet emerged as the clear favourite. As Femenia replaced Ngakia as a sub against Newcastle he may have the edge on starting here.
At left-back, new signing Hassane Kamara started against the Magpies, so you’d expect him to get another shot here. The Ivory Coast international who joined from Nice appears to be a replacement for Danny Rose who has seemingly burned his bridges with the Hornets. Another option would be Adam Masina, who has been in poor form.
At centre back, the one constant this season has been Craig Cathcart who was joined last match by Brazilian international Samir for his debut after signing from Udinese. You would expect those two to start again, although William Troost-Ekong and Francisco Sierralta have also started in recent weeks as Ranieri searched for a consistent partner for Cathcart.
The three-man midfield deployed against Newcastle consisted of 34-year-old Slovakian workhorse Juraj Kucka, former Tottenham and Newcastle drifting ball-carrier Moussa Sissoko and the last new signing, left-footed box-to-box player Edo Kayembe.
Ranieri has mixed and matched his midfielders on a game-by-game basis though, so don’t discount the likelihood of Moroccan Imran Louza being deployed in a defensive role shielding the back four, or club captain Tom Cleverley showing up just so the commentators can lazily remind us he used to play for Man United and England in the dim and distant. Turkish loanee Ozan Tufan is one who has also had a few recent starts.
The forward areas have been no less of a revolving door under Ranieri with the sometimes-passable-if-he’s-in-the-mood Josh King splitting time with prodigiously talented Brazilian Joao Pedro, big Swedish lump Ken Sema, the bizarrely-signed Championship journeyman Ashley Fletcher, and Colombian wideman Cucho Hernandez.
Nigerian Emmanuel Dennis, who has been one of the stars of the season, has been struggling with injury and at last count was unlikely to be fit, and much-coveted wideman Ismaila Sarr is at the African Cup of Nations.
Put simply, we really don’t know what side we’ll be facing come Friday night.
Ranieri’s penchant for throwing names against the team sheet and seeing who sticks makes predicting the starting eleven a lottery. With all their best players fit and in the team at the same time, they can be a force to be reckoned with. They do have a lot of influential players in their early to mid-thirties, (although the recent signings have perhaps gone some way to lowering the average age) so there is experience to lean on.
With Sarr and Dennis unlikely to play, the chief threat comes from Joao Pedro who on his day, can frighten the best defences in the Premier League.
As for Norwich, we now know that Tim Krul is out with shoulder ligament damage, with as yet no timescale on his return, so Angus Gunn will don the gloves and hope he has more joy than he did against Arsenal and Crystal Palace over the Christmas programme. Max Aarons and Brandon Williams seem likely to be able to return and Kenny McLean’s COVID return comes in time for him to point the way to victory.
The 4-4-2/4-2-4 that we’ve used in the last two games could obviously be reprised due to its success against Everton. Given that we’re playing against a team with no base formation to plan against it may well prove the sensible option. The obvious concern is that it could leave us outmanned in the middle of the park if Watford were to play three in there, but In Dean We Trust.
I’m bizarrely more confident than usual going to Vicarage Road. It’s been an absolute bonfire of disappointment for us in recent times, but Watford are not in the best of form and are struggling to find their identity under Ranieri. Norwich have experienced their first blip of improvement for weeks and are on a temporary high.
Can we sneak a win? It’s entirely possible. Will we? That’s another question entirely.