Why facing Watford is such a big test of Sheffield United's credentials
Two months ago, when Sheffield United last locked horns with Watford, Chris Wilder outlined the challenges his players had faced during their goalless draw at Vicarage Road.
Not only physical, against opponents he pointed out had some “towering athletes” at their disposal. But the psychological ones too, as United attempted to plot a course through a game most people expected them to win given their impressive start to the Premier League season.
Nearly 12 weeks later, Wilder’s squad is still in rude health. Watford, who despite Nigel Pearson’s impact since taking charge, remain rooted at the foot of the table.
So why, as he assessed Boxing Day’s return fixture in South Yorkshire, did the United manager appear so reluctant to talk-up the hosts’ chances? The answer, Wilder explained, is because he suspects it will prove an equally pressurised test as, say, their forthcoming trips to Manchester City and Liverpool.
“In a sense, because of the familiarity, they’re just as difficult, if not more difficult, than some of the other matches,” he said, reflecting upon United’s recent wins over fellow newly promoted clubs Norwich City and Aston Villa.
“Not in the camp, because our attitude remains the same. But outside it, you might get people looking at them differently because it’s not us coming up against one of the really big names where they don’t expect us to take anything.
“This one might be a little bit like that. But, and I can’t stress this enough, we know it’s going to be every bit as hard as anything we’ve faced.
“We treat everyone with the same respect because we’re not in a position to do anything else.
“We don’t have that right.”
Wilder has good reason to be wary about the threat posed by Watford, whose performances have improved immeasurably following Pearson’s appointment. Twenty-hours after unveiling him as Quique Sanchez Flores’ replacement, they drew with Crystal Palace before impressing at Anfield en route to a battling 2-0 defeat. Last weekend, having ordered Watford to abandon the uber conservative approach adopted by his predecessor, Pearson watched his squad beat Manchester United.
“They’re a good side with good players,” Wilder said. “Some really good players in fact.
“They are a team that creates chances, good chances. And they got their reward for a really positive display against Manchester United.”
“Nigel is someone who is steeped in football,” he added. “He’s honest, he can really organise and he’s an excellent coach. So you know his sides are always going to reflect that.”
Wilder noted how Watford, then under Flores’ tutelage, had “played like an away team” when United travelled to Hertfordshire.
“It’s not being critical,” he said at the time. “Because people have the right to set up how they want. You do what you think suits, and what is best for your lads.”
With Troy Deeney continuing his comeback from injury, Wilder is convinced Pearson will have devised an altogether different to the one implemented by the Spaniard.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence either,” Wilder said. “Nigel coming in and Troy coming back, to see them showing what they’re showing now.”
United, however, also have two in-form strikers at their disposal with Lys Mousset entering the game searching for his sixth goal of the campaign and Oli McBurnie on target during the recent win over Brighton and Hove Albion; a result which lifted them to fifth.
Selected ahead of the Frenchman for that match, McBurnie repaid Wilder’s faith with a clinical first-half finish which proved enough to deliver maximum points at the AMEX Stadium.
“Oli’s goal, it was a great goal,” Wilder said. “The aggression he showed and then a couple of really good touches before slowing himself right down at the end.”