How are Watford keeping pace with Liverpool?

Date published: Thursday 30th August 2018 8:08

Last weekend Watford picked up their third win in three, earning their manager a considerable honour as F365’s Early Winner. Follow the link and you’ll see justified praise for the side’s stability, resilience and tactical set-up. Now it’s time to go a bit deeper, and see exactly how the Hornets have stung their way to a place above Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal, Everton, and a bunch of other sides expected to finish ahead of them.

If you’ve heard much about Watford these past few weeks, it’s been Roberto Pereyra running wild, Will Hughes scoring from distance, and Troy Deeney playing like a much younger man. And indeed the attackers have been a big part of the Hornets’ early success. Seven goals in three games; only Manchester City, Spurs, and Chelsea have scored more.

But the bigger story with Watford is the defence. They’ve conceded just twice so far, a record bettered only by Liverpool. And while Ben Foster has been playing like a younger man as well, this isn’t a leaky defence saved by a hot keeper; Watford have allowed the second fewest shots in the league. They’ve only allowed six shots on target, total. I’ve checked two different Expected Goals Against measurements: in both they rank second, behind only the men at Anfield. That’s high-level defensive performance.

So what’s going on? When you look at the back line, you see mostly journeymen. At left-back is José Holebas, who’s 34, and has always been better known for attacking and set-pieces. At right-back is Daryl Janmaat, 29, who never reached his potential and whom Geordies will suggest isn’t quite the best defender. It gets a bit better with centre-half Craig Cathcart, also 29, a lower-league veteran whose one pre-Watford stint in the Premier League ended in relegation with Blackpool. He’s grown into the game at this level, and although not an elite defender, is solid and dependable.

Good thing too, because the fourth man is centre-half Christian Kabasele. He’s a prime-age 27, signed three years ago from Genk in Belgium, with whom he qualified for the Europa League. I’ve written some about his style in the Team of the Week feature, most recently this Tuesday. He can be truly brilliant one minute and not-so-brilliant the next, and although he’s now a fixture in the side he has yet to shine consistently. If you have the video of Sunday’s match with Crystal Palace, you’ll see him mostly at his best, covering huge areas of ground to put in dramatic tackles.

But one potential star does not a top defence make. Nor, when you look at central midfield, do you see anyone resembling N’Golo Kanté, or even Nemanja Matic. Etienne Capoue makes his share of tackles, but isn’t a specialist holding midfielder like Valon Behrami. And then there’s Abdoulaye Doucouré, who likes nothing better than charging forward to join the attack, or sometimes just charging forward.

So what’s the secret? One word: pressing. The Hornets sometimes press high, sometimes in their own half, and rarely sit back. They’re second in interceptions and tied for third in tackles, and everything starts from the front. Hughes leads the entire league in tackles/90, unheard of for an attacking player. Troy Deeney is third in tackles/90 among regular starting strikers. Farther back, Capoue’s tackles/90 are at a career high. Pereyra’s interceptions/90 are more than twice his previous high.

As a result, the back line – journeymen or wild men or whatever – is well protected. And on the rare occasions that it’s breached, Foster has been right where he needed to be. He’s made a couple of excellent stops, and has looked confident coming for crosses. Watford’s defensive numbers may not stay impressive all season, but they have a worthy top-flight keeper backing them up.

What about the attack, then? Javi Gracia’s formation has been variously described as a standard 4-4-2 and a narrow 4-2-2-2. In fact, it’s a little bit of both, because the system is designed to maximise the different attacking skills of the wingers. Hughes, playing from the right, stays narrow. He’s a creative short passer, and his positioning keeps him closer to the rest of the attackers. Pereyra, on the left, starts wide. He’s a Richarlison type, both a dribbler and passer, who generally comes inside with the ball but can go to the line as well.

Gracia has also hit the tactical mark with his striker system. It’s pretty traditional, actually: one centre-forward and one support striker. André Gray stays within the width of the boxes, while Deeney drops a bit deeper and roves where he’s most needed.

The key at the moment is Deeney. Last season he scored his fewest goals in seven years, and his most frequent accompanying adjective was ‘aging’ or ‘declining’. He often seemed unfit. Every month or so there was a transfer rumour of some sort, and he could have been forgiven for thinking he’d soon become surplus to requirements.

But these days he seems fitter than ever. Just as importantly, Gracia realised that Deeney, while capable enough as a centre-forward, was better in the supporting role, where his passing, mobility, and tactical awareness could come into play. That’s where he flourished a few years ago under Quique Sánchez Flores, and where he’s most certainly flourishing now. While Pereyra has made headlines putting the ball in the net from various angles, Deeney has been quietly facilitating matters and getting his share of shots too. Against Burnley he crossed from the right to assist Gray’s goal, then executed a classic run-into-space-plus-finish for one of his own. He’s still the captain, and once more the heartbeat of the side.

As for Gray, he has yet to excel. He’s had difficulty shaking his markers and his touch has been inconsistent. But his goal was very well-taken, and when Watford need to counter, his pace has been effective in stretching the defence. Hornets fans have been waiting quite a while for him to come good, but with nine points in the bag might be willing to wait a little more.

We’ve already mentioned Doucouré, who works with Capoue in a similarly classic central midfield pairing: one more forward, one deeper. Again the system fits the skills. Doucouré started his Watford career as a deep midfielder, but is much more at home in the attacking half. His all-out brand of football is a pleasure to watch, and Gracia has made him more disciplined: he’s not shooting from distance as much, and although last year he received 10 bookings, he has yet to see a card. It was his perfect pass to Deeney in the box that led to the captain’s goal.

So it’s all going swimmingly (stingingly?) for the Hornets right now. Their fixtures, Brighton (H), Burnley (A), and Crystal Palace (H), while not the most testing, haven’t been gimmes either. There’s an important caveat, however. Unlike the defence, the attack has been significantly over-performing their xG, more so than almost everyone else in the league. They’ve scored on several low percentage shots: Pereyra on a volley from near the top of the box, Hughes from long range, Gray with a volley on the run, Holebas unintentionally on a cross. That sort of thing can’t continue for long. To continue their success, even against mid-level teams, they’ll have to get more shots from good shooting positions.

Good luck on that this weekend. Their opponents are Tottenham Hotspur, who travel to Vicarage Road off a notable win at a rather larger stadium, over a rather more moneyed club. Will Watford dare to press against one of the best pressing sides around? If they choose to counter-attack, can André Gray possibly prevail against the league’s best central defensive pairing? One thing we know: Watford won’t be F365’s Early Winner. But that’s only because the game isn’t until Sunday afternoon. Take three points here, and not only will Watford top Winners and Losers – they could conceivably top the league. Even I think that’s more important.

Peter Goldstein

 

 

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