Resident columnist Billy Hawkins tries to get to the bottom of the Hornets’ defensive frailties at the tail end of matches
It appears as if the narrative has been written for the remainder of the season.
Leicester and Burnley will achieve promotion, four clubs out of a potential seven will enter the play-offs, and Watford will continue to concede late goals.
Considering this innate ability is not done at Beppe Sannino’s behest, the players mental fragility must exist in such a state that they cannot, to use a cliché, ‘park the bus’.
Whilst 86 minutes into the game against Millwall at the weekend saw Almen Abdi’s strike seemingly claim all three points, another injury time equaliser – from another goalkeeping error – from Martyn Woolford saw Ian Holloway extend his unbeaten run to four games.
Although it would seem apt to concern this article with the non compos mentis methods of Manuel Almunia, I have broached that subject before. Instead, a focus upon the last-minute defensive lapses will be covered here – both mental and physical causes exist in this Watford squad.
Mental fragility is a term bandied round the footballing press at an alarming rate; whether discussing the obligatory Arsenal title collapse or Paris Saint-Germain’s Champions League defeat to Chelsea, excuses concerning ‘cracking under the pressure’ are used to remove any blame from the team.
With Watford, it appears as if the closeness of a lead is the reason for the mental collapse. Whilst a two-or-three goal cushion means the defence can relax as a game enters the last ten minutes – in the knowledge that even if they concede a goal, it is unlikely the game will be lost – a one goal lead causes a frightened sense of urgency.
Unfortunately, this urgency manifests itself in the form of sitting deep and losing the ball in dangerous areas. Whilst clearing the ball long allows a few seconds respite from the attacking surge, the defence knows that gifting the ball to the opposition is inviting more pressure. Thus, the defence falls deeper to counter this pressure.
Whilst many defences are improved as men get behind the ball and sit just in front of goal – Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea have proven this season that multiple lines of defence have a use in the modern game – there is always an outlet to clear the ball to – Willian and Eden Hazard comply with this role in Mourinho’s side – which allows the defensive shape to be reorganised and pushed further forward, thus constricting the space between the midfield and defence.
Whilst Mourinho’s holding midfielders sit deep with the aim of breaking up attacks, they offer a resembled on-field positioning which doesn’t conflict with the role the defenders are playing.
As mentioned previously, Sannino’s gameplan revolves around the constricting of space, yet he is still victim to the physical abilities of the players he has inherited. As games near their close, the constricting of space has occurred successfully, but the reorganisation has not occurred, creating two intertwined lines which conflict with defensive positioning. Whilst Sannino’s actions from the dugout express a desire for his team to push forward, the substitution of Ikechi Anya removed the one player who can act as the focal point for any clearances.
Anya’s importance in Sannino’s reign has not gone unnoticed, and his role has in the squad has seen him enter the pitch in a number of positions. His greatest trait is undoubtedly his pace – a trait he shares with Willian and Hazard – allowing him to latch onto numerous clearances.
Although his finishing is at a level below that of his competition, he is always willing to chase down the ball to win back possession. This is especially helpful with the presence of Troy Deeney in the side; his physicality makes him a marvellous presence in the defensive phase, but with the intention of clearing the ball, Anya acts as the only attacking player.
I do not begrudge Deeney playing this defensive role, but his willingness to help his team works against him in this situation. And it is in this situation when a striker with certain abilities is needed. For all the talk of the need for a ‘pacey striker’, most of it has come from desperation to see Matej Vydra back in a Watford shirt. Yet, a player with Vydra’s abilities would fit in Sannino’s side perfectly. Not only as a strike partner to take the goal scoring load off Deeney, but also as an entirely offensive forward in the latter stages of closely fought games.
Although these ramblings are bound to the sense of frustration occurring in the post-match existential crisis which occurs following the conceding of a late goal, they outline the state of the current Watford squad, and the problems Sannino needs to address if he intends to continue with his re-stylisation of the team.
Although he may manage to fix the technical problem by the end of the season – the current pressure-less games which remain are perfect for a defensive reshuffle – it could take well into the summer to teach the players not to fear themselves.