In the fourth instalment of Game By Game, Kieran Callanan discusses the frustration of seeing the Hornets playing a defensive system at Preston and losing
The Game By Game series is published in tandem by Vital Watford and polymaas.com.
If we were frustrated and disappointed with a couple of 0-0 draws at home to Premier League opposition, we`re surely pulling our hair out at last night`s 1-0 defeat at the hands of Preston North End. Even without thinking about the scoreline, at first glance it was a performance that left so much to be desired from top to bottom. But you often need to be stubborn when you have a solid vision of what you want from the future, and Watford fans need to count on that notion when they get frustrated with Quique Sanchez Flores’ decisions early on in his tenure.
The head coach made 11 changes to the line up that faced Southampton just two days previously, and the game was seen by most supporters watching on as an opportunity for players that weren`t getting a sniff of Premier League action to prove their worth. Matej Vydra, Fernando Forestieri, Gabriele Angella, Daniel Pudil, and even Almen Abdi, were all poised to show the head coach what they were worth to the squad.
Although there were changes to personnel, there was no discernible change in the setup. The recently lamented 4-2-3-1 was again on show at Deepdale, and this is where our problems started.
It has been said time and time again that Sanchez Flores is neglecting the individual talents of some of our best players, opting instead to focus on a shape that is hard for the opposition to break down at the expense of a cohesive attacking unit. Watford`s most talented players at the close of last season ply their trade in the final third. This season, we are surprisingly well-drilled and well-staffed at the back, and our attackers look nothing like they did just a few months ago.
This has much to do with summer recruitment. The midfield double-pivot of Etienne Capoue and Valon Behrami forms the most important partnership in the squad. These two sit deep, break up play, and guide the ball away from trouble. Further to this, Sebastian Prödl has been a brutish revelation at centre half, and Allan Nyom has impressed as much with his energy going forward as his Lloyd Doyley 2.0 one-on-one defending.
So, on a wet and windy Lancashire evening, how would our second string fare in this same setup? Ben Watson and Connor Smith were this evening`s Capoue and Behrami, and it was clear that they are understudies. Instead of an all-rounder like Troy Deeney occupying the solo striker role we had Matej Vydra. Clinical in front of goal, blistering pace, but streets behind Deeney in this position.
Other than the aforementioned though, on paper, we had more than capable individuals occupying their positions. Abdi was in his preferred number-10 role (though without a second striker to feed as he did at the tail end of last season), Angella and Britos are a centre back pairing that should flourish against Championship opposition, Paredes played plenty of times last season, and so on.
But come full time, Watford were a man short*, defeated by a single goal, and with just one shot on target to show for it. How did this happen?
Many have pointed immediately to the head coach, and his stubbornness in playing a defensive system despite the stature of the opposition. But this group of players are good in attack, and the formation has been used by plenty of league- and cup-winning sides. And why play a different formation with the second string if those playing are looking to make a case for their inclusion in the first team? They will have to play well in this system at some point if they`re to make it under Sanchez Flores at Watford this season.
Maybe there`s some merit to this criticism though. It depends on how you look at the situation. When a goal down and chasing the game, particularly when the game drew closer to full time, should the head coach have adapted the system? If a positive result is all that`s wanted, surely this would be advisable. But if Watford had changed their way, played a different style towards the end, and got themselves a win, it would have papered over cracks that will surely only reemerge the next time the players play the preferred 4-2-3-1 system.
Sanchez Flores clearly has a solid philosophy. And though the players that he selected last night aren`t used to many of the aspects of his ways, he is right to have expected more. The most distressing element of last night`s performance was precisely the fact that this group of fringe players – whether they are only recently on the edges of the squad, as in the case of Vydra, or have been plying their trade away from the first team for some time now, as in the case of the likes of Smith – did not put in a performance that gives the head coach any selection headaches.
Why did we see no spark? It may be that the group that played last night were dissatisfied and thus disinterested. Whether it was a lack of motivation that caused such a dour performance is a bleakly intriguing proposition for Hornets supporters – presumably Sanchez Flores has a better idea of whether or not it was a mindset issue than us in the stands. But it may be because this is a group of players who, by and large, are desperately struggling to get to grips with the head coach`s philosophy.
To hazard a guess, I believe it`s likely there`s a bit of both in that performance. For sure, the likes of Vydra will absolutely feel let down by his lack of minutes so far this season. The reason for Sanchez Flores leaving him out according to the head coach himself has been to do with his ineffectiveness playing the system currently being rolled out. So is it a vicious cycle in this case? A player that struggles to get to grips with the system loses his opportunity to play regularly due to his poor performance in that system. As a result of this, the player feels disgruntled, uncomfortable with what`s being asked of him, and as such demotivated. Certainly, playing Vydra up top on his own is a textbook case of trying to put a square peg in a round hole. How can Vydra show us and the head coach his best when he`s played out of position? There is much to think about for the head coach on this point alone.
Quique Sanchez Flores isn`t interested in simple solutions, it seems. His basic grasp of the English language belies his truly intricate understanding of football. His eyes light up when he speaks of tactical battles, but his words fail to fully articulate his viewpoint. Only through his eyes and in his repeated use of the word ‘sensation` do we get a truer glimpse of the man`s spiritual connection with the game. And though it`s of course premature to write off a head coach after just four competitive games, especially considering our most recent successes have started with a seemingly stubborn manager sacrificing creativity for a stable base, it is Sanchez Flores` clear desire to build something in spite of any early setbacks, that makes me trust that this defeat is not a cause for major concern.
Pragmatically, we can look at the failings in the cup of otherwise successful clubs to ease our worries. We lost to Doncaster early on in the cup last year, but that didn`t stop us from getting promoted to the Premier League. And Leicester and Crystal Palace before us lost in their opening forays in the cup in their first seasons in the Premier League, and that didn`t stop them from consolidating their top-flight status.
So let us now turn to more important fixtures, starting this Saturday. Watford face an almost impossible task at the Etihad, where our so-far resilient defensive unit will be tested to its limits. Should we come away with anything from that game, the fans who have moaned and groaned at the sight of a single striker and two holding midfielders will have to hold their hands up and admit it has a place. But those who are simply wishing for a distinguishable Plan B will have to wait until we perfect our Plan A, I suspect.
That will come though, I`m sure of it. Something is being built here, and we`ll all feel a good sensation once it comes together.
*I haven`t seen Miguel Britos` red-card offence, so don`t really want to pass judgement on him/it in detail just yet. It`s safe to say that he`s not exactly sent a good message to the fans considering his arrival at the club immediately followed a sending off for an off the ball head-butt. I hope that`s the last we see of that kind of behaviour by him, but something tells me my hopes will be dashed.
The Game By Game series is published in tandem by Vital Watford and polymaas.com.