With a number of Premier League teams appointing new managers at the start of the season, managerial rivalries have been a part of the narrative, especially in Manchester where Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola will resume their rather tempestuous history. But a lesser-known rivalry resumes on Saturday afternoon when Chelsea travel to Vicarage Road to face Watford.
Back in 2012 when Conte was the manager of Juventus and Mazzarri was the manager of Napoli, Mazzarri famously declared that Conte had copied the 3-5-2 formation that Napoli had used to great success in Europe and would allow his side to challenge Juventus to the Scudetto in 2012-2013, citing Conte’s previous use of 4-2-4 at his previous club Siena. Tensions between the pair continued into 2013 where after a 1-1 draw between Juventus and Napoli, handshakes were not exchanged after the match and the frosty relationship continued.
Two years later, the pair will reunite once more, but under very different circumstances. Mazzarri took over Watford from the departed Quique Sanchez Flores in the summer and inherited a side who finished 13th in the league last season and reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup.
Despite their run in the FA Cup last season, the Hornets faded towards the end of the season, registering just 8 points in the league from March onward.
Even though their end to the season was disappointing, Mazzarri takes over a team that does have some options at his disposal. With his preferred formation being 3-5-2, Watford does boast of last season’s best strike partnerships in Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney. The pair combined for 28 goals last campaign and will once again be asked to replicate that total.
However, in their 1-1 draw with Southampton, the adjustment to the 3-5-2 looks to be a work in progress. While Deeney and Ighalo provide the ability to finish chances, the Hornets’ midfield lacks a bit of creativity to open up an opposition’s defence, as the bulk of their central midfielders are more of the box-to-box type than the creative type.
On the other end of the pitch, defence looks a bit of a conundrum as their back line doesn’t quite look comfortable playing as a three, especially with Mazzarri preferring to play wide midfielders rather than dedicated wing backs. Help is on the way, though, for the Hornets, with news that Younes Kaboul has been signed from Sunderland, but not in time to be registered for Saturday’s match.
As for Chelsea, don’t expect any 3-5-2 battles from Conte’s men any time soon. Against West Ham United last Monday, Conte’s side set up in a familiar 4-3-3 that looked vaguely similar to the system played by Jose Mourinho in his first stint as manager, with new signing N’Golo Kante sitting in front of the defence, though at times he operated as almost a third central defender.
The names on the team sheet looked familiar from last season’s disappointing campaign, but with one noticeable difference. Cesc Fabregas found himself in an unfamiliar place since his move to Chelsea, a seat on the bench, with Conte preferring Oscar in that midfield position.
It worked well, as the Blues were instructed to play a rather high pressing game against West Ham and were able to control much of the game, though a late Diego Costa goal proved vital in the final scoreline.
Costa, himself, will be interesting to watch on Saturday. The striker has already run afoul of the new rules on dissent and abusive language directed at referees, picking up his first yellow of the season just 29 minutes in after vigorously protesting a decision. It will be interesting to see if he curbs that behaviour.
But despite that negative, there were a couple positives. Eden Hazard was the best player on the pitch against West Ham and showed a sharpness to his play that wasn’t often seen last season, though he did seem to trail off in the later stages of the match. The spirit and fight also seemed to return to the team, as the Blues came back to score the winner after a 77th minute equaliser nearly earned the Hammers a point.
If Chelsea can keep the momentum from that home victory, especially in the manner in which the match was won, the Blues may be on their way to finding their way back to the performances that saw them win the title just one year ago.