Watching Watford: There’s something happening there…

Date published: Monday 14th August 2017 2:38

Liverpool were held to a draw on Saturday, showing all their old defensive weaknesses, giving up three goals, even if the last was offside. And that’s the last time you’ll hear about Liverpool FC in this article. Because while everyone’s talking (or perhaps screaming) about the team in red, I want to talk about the team in yellow and black.

They’re managed by Marco Silva, near-miracle worker at Hull City last year. Known to fans everywhere as the Antimerse, he seems to specialise in taking a whole bunch of players he’s never seen before and making them a cohesive unit.

On Saturday lunchtime, before a raucous home crowd, he showed how it’s done. Playing a basic 4-2-3-1, his side went at the visitors from the start, giving them little space to operate, pushing the ball forward at every opportunity, mixing short and long passes, technique and power.

Although 10 of the 11 starters got playing time when healthy last year, this is already a different unit. On Saturday they registered 46.1% possession, which may not sound like much. But remember who they were playing. Last year in this fixture they managed only 40.0%. This year the press also limited the opposition to a stunningly low 73.9% completion rate. Last year it was 80%.

There was also less long ball on Saturday than last year, although not a lot. But it was much more focused. With Troy Deeney out, Stefano Okaka was the target, and although he won only three of 13 aerial duels, more than once he controlled the ball on his chest or with his feet. More importantly, the whole team knew exactly where he was going to be, and were in excellent position to pick up the second ball. And when it came time to deliver on a set-piece, Okaka headed home.

As for that hyperactive midfield, two names stood out. The first is Abdoulaye Doucouré, who joined from Rennes last year and by May had emerged as a promising deep midfielder. On Saturday he was much more than promising, not only notching the best pass completion percentage of any midfielder in the game (82.2%), but both advancing and finishing the move to put the side 2-1 up. He’s fast, smooth in possession, and can dribble past an opponent when necessary.

The second is none other than Thomas William Cleverley. He’s been the subject of mockery for some time now, and I plead extra guilty to joining in. The Marquis of Mediocrity, The Duke of Dullness, King of the Sideways Pass. Well, on Saturday, fully 61% of his passes went forward, compared to last year’s season total of. . .61%. But there’s a big difference: last year he almost always played deep or midway on the wing, but on Saturday he played well forward, in the center of the line of three. And while playing there he also just happened to make the crucial run behind the defence which led to his pass for Doucouré’s goal. Tom Cleverley as a number 10? Under Marco Silva, just maybe.

On Saturday we also glimpsed two more useful attacking players. André Gray was a mini-Vardy, racing behind the defence on counter-attacks. Richarlison, the Brazilian league winger whose work permit had been approved just a few days before, looked tricky and lively.

There are definite weaknesses in the side, most of them in defence. That they allowed three goals is no fluke, and the main reasons are named Femenia, Kaboul, Britos, Holebas and Gomes. New boy Kiko Femenia was thrown in the deep end for the injured Daryl Janmaat, but the others are experienced Premier League pros, and none of them performed terribly well, unless you count Britos crowding the opposition keeper on a goal that shouldn’t have stood. Reinforcements would be helpful.

One also has to admit that Doucouré, for all his skill, isn’t a destroyer at the base of midfield. His sidekick, Nathaniel Chalobah, is supposed to handle that job, but he frequently found himself out of position, and overall seemed unsure of himself. Two tackles, one interception and only 70.4% pass completion. Must do better.

There’s also that matter of injuries. Janmaat, their best defender and an effective two-way player, hasn’t been consistently healthy for a while. And their most creative midfielder, Roberto Pereyra, who missed half of last season after knee surgery, felt a twinge in his groin and departed early. The odds are both will be needed if the season is to be a success.

Of course, it’s only one game. But really it’s more than that. We got a look at Silva’s handiwork at Hull last year, and we know from experience that ownership will back him in the transfer market. Before kick-off, they were fourth favourites to be relegated. They’re still likely to finish in the bottom half, and if the linesman had called it right on Saturday, they would have lost. But if I lived where betting was legal, I’d bet on them not only to survive, but thrive.

The club is named Watford FC. They’re known as the Hornets. They wear yellow and black. Watch them this year and enjoy.

Peter Goldstein

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