If ever a game was destined to finish 0-0 then surely it is this one. Both Boro and Watford are struggling for consistency and form, firmly locked in that strange grey area of the middle-to-lower end of the Premier League, unsure whether to dream of the elusive win that closes the gap on Bournemouth or ponder the disappointing defeat that allows Jermain Defoe to drag them closer to the bottom three. It is, as ever, all about fine margins but from Boro’s point of view the trip to Vicarage Road is as presentable an opportunity to win a top-level game away from home for the first time since August as they are likely to get between now and March.
There appears to be an air of anxiety, a sense of general uncertainty, around Watford this season. Walter Mazzarri, patrolling his technical area like a crumpled Alec Baldwin, has tried a series of formations and systems, frequently switching from a back three to a four, over to a five and then back again. He is currently dealing with something of an injury crisis and Alvaro Negredo has scored the same number of league goals as Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo combined. There are definitely weaknesses for Boro to expose. The game will be played amidst a backdrop of huge sadness after the passing of Watford legend Graham Taylor but Boro, as a collective, must keep a clear head.
Boro’s performance in the corresponding fixture at the Riverside in October, which Watford won 1-0, was so bad that it marked the end for Aitor Karanka’s favoured 4-2-3-1 set-up in favour of a 4-3-3 system. It seemed unlikely, at that point, that Boro would go on to record a better set of results than Watford between then and the return meeting. In the twelve league games since Watford won on Teesside, they have won three, drawn twice and lost seven. Boro have won three, drawn four and lost five. Both teams have scored 10 league goals but Watford have conceded 23 to Boro’s 11, which highlights where Watford’s most pressing issues currently lie.
One charge often levelled at Karanka’s Boro is that they are too predictable. With over half of the league campaign now gone, and with each team having a much clearer idea as to how the opposition sets their team up, this game is perhaps a good opportunity for Karanka to try something new in terms of team shape. Boro appear to have the personnel to play a 3-5-2 system, with Fabio and Friend providing the width and Ramirez playing off Negredo. The central midfield three would remain in place and Ramirez would be allowed to operate a little more freely than he would if deployed on the left. A team of Valdes; Fabio, Chambers, Espinosa, Gibson, Friend; Clayton; De Roon, Forshaw; Ramirez; Negredo is surely worth a look. Karanka’s perpetual pragmatism coupled with an injury to Ramirez means any change of shape at this stage is unlikely, though it is a potentially interesting option for Karanka to mull over in future.
Regardless of the formation he chooses tomorrow, Karanka has enough quality within the ranks to expose Watford’s weaknesses and win the game. And with home fixtures against West Ham and West Brom on the horizon, and an FA Cup 4th round tie at home to Accrington Stanley sandwiched in between those two games, it is tempting to wonder what would become of Boro’s season should they leave Hertfordshire with three points in the bag.