The latest Game By Game focuses on an unfamiliar-looking Watford side in their 0-0 draw at home to Southampton. Game By Game is a weekly feature written by Kieran Callanan
The Game By Game series is published in tandem by Vital Watford and polymaas.com.
If ever there was a time to be happy to be a Hornet, it`s now, surely? Owned by genuine football people with a magnificent track record at Udinese and Granada, an exciting squad full of seasoned internationals, a stadium that hasn`t looked better in its history, and an unbeaten start to our first season back in the Premier League for almost a decade. Yet, as is the Watford way it seems, a growing contingent are frustrated.
Two goalless home draws in just over a week is what`s done it. Used to a free scoring side that romped to victory after victory at the tail end of last season, the Vicarage Road faithful need time to get used to seeing a solid base restricting a newfangled front four that more often than not huff and puff with no end product. It`s not the long-term plan, but it is the foundation of what Quique Sanchez Flores wants from this squad. We are no longer simply scoring one more than the opposition. The plan is more complicated than that.
Against West Brom, supporters were frustrated to get a point after seeing their team dominate possession and the attacking play. Yes, Watford had far more chances than the Baggies – despite the best chance of all falling to Saido Berahino late on – and not capitalising on that is a fair reason to be a little bit disappointed with a nil-nil. But against Southampton Watford faced a far more dangerous opposition.
Southampton have been lauded for their success over the last few years. With Ronald Koeman at the helm, they have flourished despite losing some of their most gifted players every summer. Genuine ability fills the squad. Pellè, Wanyama and Romeu are examples of brute force and sublime technique coming together, and Mané exemplifies the workrate and unpredictability that the Saints bring to every ground they visit. A serious proposition. One that should not be taken lightly. Arguably the Hornets` most difficult task yet would be breaking down this Southampton side whilst keeping it tight at the back.
The Saints set up with three at the back – a decision that some Watford fans might be hoping that Sanchez Flores makes some time in the future, such was the Golden Boys` propensity to flourish playing 3-5-2. This meant that lone striker Troy Deeney was often overwhelmed and even more isolated than he has been in the first two matches of the season. Southampton were also far more likely than I assumed they would be to let Watford play the ball around and control the pace of the game for large periods, opting to press periodically rather than throughout.
Early on, however, it was Southampton who were most dangerous. It took a little while for Watford to come into the game, and the visitors found space in behind on a couple of occasions. As the game wore on though, it was the home side that took the initiative, and Jose Manuel Jurado, Allan Nyom and Ikechi Anya were at the heart of everything good that Watford created going forward.
Which brings me to the strikers. Unfortunately, the 4-2-3-1 system is working in all areas except up top. Odion Ighalo was drawn out of position regularly, occupying areas that a number nine should be in. This left a gaping hole in the middle of the final third when looking to attack. With Behrami and Capoue sitting deep, when Anya or Jurado`s runs were stifled their only option on most occasions was to go back towards their own goal.
Straight after the break, Quique Sanchez Flores tried to counter this problem, but chose not to fill that hole behind the number nine position. He brought off Jose Holebas, whose first half was solid, even threatening with a powerful shot from distance that ultimately cannoned off Troy Deeney`s midriff. Brought on in his place but not his position, was new signing Alessandro Diamanti. Instead of addressing the hole in the centre of the pitch just behind Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo, it appeared that we would look to exploit the wings even more than we were already, and with Ikechi Anya moving to left back behind Diamanti, we had a willing runner down the wing every time we attacked down either flank – as Anya and Nyom are far more likely to make a run beyond the winger than Holebas.
As it turned out, we had more chances, but none were put away. None were even put on target. Watford were wasteful in front of goal, with an Ighalo flicked header barely seven yards out failing to test Stekelenburg, and Etienne Capoue managing to head over from a corner maybe two yards from the goal line. These were match-defining moments.
At the other end, Graziano Pellè hit a powerful shot towards the nearside top corner after grinding out just enough space for him to pull the trigger, but this was met by the unimpeachable Heurelho Gomes, who was tested only slightly more than his opposite number. The only other Saints shots were long-range, and they were all blazed over.
As the game trundled towards full time, Fernando Forestieri`s name rang out across the Rookery, and it eventually spread to all four sides of the stadium. Forestieri had been left out of last week`s squad, but was reinstated this week at the expense of Matej Vydra. With the diminutive second striker apparently on the verge of a move to Leeds United, he and the Watford fans wanted a last hurrah. A chance for Fernando to prove his worth. He eagerly ran up and down the touchline for the full final ten minutes, but the only change made saw a tired Valon Behrami make way for Ben Watson.
With Diamanti worryingly unfit on the left flank as time wore on, and the quality balls being put in becoming fewer and farther between, the supporters assembled wanted to see something different. Ighalo could have been replaced by the deeper-lying Forestieri, and we could have seen whether the Southampton lock could be picked. Even Abdi, possibly the best player to pull on the yellow of Watford, wasn`t summoned. Flores stuck to his plan, and the match ended, just like last week, with no bang.
The defensive unit is succeeding, but going forward Watford are not looking like the slick machine that they were just a few months ago. With Vydra and Forestieri both apparently frozen out, and Berghuis and Diamanti looking a long way behind physically, things will have to change to remedy the Hornets` failings in the final third.
So yes, in many ways it really was an underwhelming game. The chin-stroking of last week’s tactical battle was replaced by fist-clenching. Watford lack attacking fluency, and the personnel right now do not fit the system being implemented. But that will change. These players are learning a new formation, learning to play with new teammates, learning to play under a new head coach, and learning how to play well in a new league. A new league that’s also new to the head coach. And while these things begin to come together, Watford aren`t losing games.
It’s uncomfortable to have a team that seems to have gained all the qualities we lacked last season and lost many of the strengths we had not so long ago – it’s been so long since we were so solid at the back and so lacking in creativity up top – but we should give it time and get used to points being more valuable in these heady new heights of the Premier League.
Three points from the first three games in the Premier League is nothing to be sniffed at, and though that taste of victory might have to wait a few weeks with a trip to the Etihad on Saturday likely to see our first defeat in the top flight, it`ll only make it that much sweeter when it does all come together.
With Preston in the cup to come tonight, there`s a chance for some of the fringe players to impress. Stalwarts from just a few months ago like Abdi, Angella and Vydra will surely all play a big part, and their performance levels will be indicative of the mood of the squad at large. It will be especially interesting to see the attitude of the enigmatic Matej Vydra, whose off-and-on relationship with Watford needs to be shored up swiftly. His ruthlessness in front of goal is sorely missed right now.
The Game By Game series is published in tandem by Vital Watford and polymaas.com.