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The Premier League is relatively unaccustomed to mid-season pauses, having resisted the introduction of a winter break for so long. Yet the need for additional space in the calendar for World Cup qualifiers in South America, Asia and the CONCACAF region has seen English sides out of action for a couple of weeks. Most of the division’s teams will have to wait a few more days before returning to Premier League action, with Burnley vs Watford the only top-flight game taking place this weekend.
A fixture like this might not whet the appetite like a Manchester City vs Liverpool or Chelsea vs Arsenal, but there are plenty of reasons to tune in on Saturday. For one, this could be a crunch clash in the relegation battle. It looks like only one of the current bottom four will survive, so taking points off a fellow struggler could be huge come the end of the campaign.
Saturday’s match also marks the return of Roy Hodgson to the Premier League. The 74-year-old, who became the oldest manager in the history of the competition in 2019, was appointed as Claudio Ranieri’s successor last month. The Italian lost 11 of his 14 matches in charge at Vicarage Road, leaving Watford in just as precarious a position as he found them. Hodgson looks a better choice to lead a side battling against the drop.
The former England manager has experience of getting teams out of trouble. He pulled off one of the Premier League’s greatest ever escapes when he led Fulham to safety in 2007/08. He was afforded more time to turn around a bleak situation at Crystal Palace a decade later, but Hodgson worked wonders in achieving a mid-table finish with a team which had lost its first seven games. His arrival in Hertfordshire gives Watford a better chance of staying up.
Burnley have some catching up to do, in terms of both games and points. Even after Saturday’s contest, they will have up to three games in hand on some of their relegation rivals. Various postponements due to Covid-19 (and snow against Tottenham in late November) mean Burnley will play more Premier League matches from now until the end of the campaign than any other team in the division.
That is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, Burnley’s fate is in their own hands. They are already just four points adrift of safety, despite having played fewer games than all the teams above them. Their points-per-game record so far this season is only slightly inferior to those of Watford, Newcastle United and Norwich City, the three other teams involved in the fight against demotion.
On the other hand, managers often state they would rather have points on the board than games in hand. Burnley will face more significant fixture congestion than their rivals at the bottom. Their squad is on the small side, and Sean Dyche has never been one to make wholesale changes from game to game. Still, Burnley have experience of relegation battles and that could work to their advantage in the weeks and months ahead.
There is a reason Watford have turned to Hodgson: their defensive record this season is appalling. Twenty games into the season and the Hornets have still not kept a clean sheet. Norwich and Newcastle have conceded more goals, but Watford have the worst expected goals against record in the Premier League – that is, they are conceding higher quality chances than any other team.
Watford have quality in attacking areas, with the likes of Josh King, Joao Pedro and, in particular, Emmanuel Dennis having all caught the eye. But firepower alone will not get them out of trouble. It is imperative that Watford tighten up at the back.
Hodgson is an astute choice in that regard. His teams do not always play the most entertaining soccer, but he knows how to organize a defense. He will have preached the importance of keeping things tight to his players ever since his appointment. This weekend against Burnley he will be prioritizing a clean sheet above all else.
Burnley are not exactly the most free-scoring of sides, having found the back of the net only 16 times to date. Their last outing was a 0-0 draw with Arsenal, after which Dyche praised his players for their diligence and discipline. Taking everything into account, a goalless first half looks like a sensible choice at Caesars Sportsbook (+160).
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|Burnley vs Watford Information|
|Teams||Burnley vs Watford|
|Location||Turf Moor, Burnley, England|
|Time||Saturday, 5 February 2022, 1.00 PM EST|
|How to watch||Peacock Premium|
Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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