Game By Game: Discipline, shape & tenacity at Goodison
Only the harshest critics of the Hornets could criticise Quique Sanchez Flores` men in their opening foray in the Premier League away at Everton on Saturday. On a fine August afternoon on Merseyside, the Golden Boys were twice in the lead, only to succumb to a late Arouna Kone equaliser. This was no fluke; Watford fully deserved at least the point they got from the game, and can be positive about their prospects for the season ahead.
Watford set up to stifle and surprise
The way Flores set his side up was a statement of intent - the team was lined up to contain and to break, and solidity at the back was the foundation to Watford`s success. This kind of tactic hasn`t been in vogue at Vicarage Road for quite some time, and it`s clear that the reason it worked at Goodison Park on Saturday was because of the new personnel playing in yellow.
Much will be made of the Behrami-Capoue double-pivot, and for good reason. These two players are absolutely integral to the way Flores wants Watford to play. The holding midfielders played just in front of the back four, and they took responsibility for breaking up play and recycling possession. Their tenacity in winning the ball in the middle of the park was matched by their calmness when on the ball, often opting to feed the wide players with a pass to feet to start a new phase of forward play.
Attention to the wings
Although Slavisa Jokanovic adopted a 4-1-2-1-2 system towards the tail end of last season, for much of the Hornets` recent past a 3-5-2 setup has been the norm. Susceptible to weaknesses on the flanks when defending, Watford were over-reliant on their attackers and creative midfielders, as the lack of depth on the wings when defending often meant conceding a goal or two against better opposition. Deeney, Ighalo and Vydra all scored goals for fun in the Championship though, so that defensive vulnerability was evened out over the course of the season.
The Premier League is a different kettle of fish, though. And Everton are especially good at doubling up in wide positions when attacking. Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines (who missed out due to injury on Saturday) are two of the best fullbacks in the league going forward, and so Flores` decision to not only implement his apparently favoured 4-2-3-1 formation, but to also play defensively-disciplined players on both wings behind the striker, was smart and ended up paying dividends.
Layun has found his place
With Ikechi Anya and Miguel Layun playing on the wings, ahead of Jose Holebas and the very impressive Allan Nyom respectively, Watford had a discipline about them that they wouldn`t have had with more offensive players in those positions. Both players have extraordinary engines - especially Layun, who worked incredibly hard until being substituted after an hour.
Miguel Layun has struggled to hold down a starting place for the Hornets, often being deployed in central midfield in both the 4-1-2-1-2 and 3-5-2 formations mentioned previously, but he looked every bit the Mexican star he was billed as before arriving in Hertfordshire playing out wide in this system.
His goal showed us that he can be clinical, a quality that hasn`t been apparent since his January move from Club América. His overall performance highlighted his stamina and his willingness to fight for possession. It was often suggested that Layun would find more time on the ball in the Premier League, and that his strengths would be better suited to the top flight, where brute force is rarely the opposition`s Plan A. Although I`m not sure it`s true that players are afforded more time with the ball in the Premier League, Layun certainly has adapted quickly to the pace of the game after promotion, and I`m looking forward to seeing him deployed in this position when Watford look to contain the opposition. I can see him being used in this way away from home quite often.
When to wait, when to press
Crucial to the game plan adopted by Flores on Saturday was the side`s shape when Everton were in possession. Watford were happy to let John Stones and Phil Jagielka play the ball in their own half, and would only press once the ball came into the Watford half.
How they pressed was also of note. Outnumbering was key. Often, the Hornets` shape resembled a 4-5-1, or even a 6-3-1, with the wide men doubling up on Everton`s attacking players and fullbacks, drifting into the back four. The play was also compressed in the middle, with a very small gap between the Golden Boys` front and back line.
An interesting stat gleaned from the game showed that Everton played more long balls than any other team in the league on Saturday (107). This is at odds with their stats from last year, in which their long ball use was much lower (68 per game on average). Watford frustrated Roberto Martinez`s usual style of play with their defensive shape, and this was particularly evident in the first half.
As energy levels dropped later on in the game, Flores attempted to freshen things up and keep the Hornets pressing and flooding in the right areas of the pitch. Paredes came on for Layun, and Watson replaced Behrami - whose only memorable error in an otherwise excellent debut unfortunately led to Everton`s first goal on 76 minutes.
With six debutants in the starting line up, forgive me for not paying each of them the attention they perhaps deserve.
Probably the strongest performance of the new recruits - but only just - came from right back Allan Nyom. His defensive capabilities are very impressive. He made some very important tackles around the by-line, and was never out-muscled. He drove forward with purpose, and looks to have fit in with the group straight away. My only criticism relates to his willingness to hit the ball long up the wing, oftentimes without an intended recipient. I can only assume this was a tactic employed to relieve pressure though, so it`s no big deal.
José Holebas was assured at left back until he began to tire late on, leading to a few aimless looped balls to the Everton central midfield. In fairness, his wing was targeted a lot more than Nyom`s, given that Baines wasn`t playing and Mirallas was Everton`s stand out player for large periods. Going forward he showed that he could beat a man and put in a cross. There`s nothing to suggest he won`t be a mainstay in the Watford starting line up all season.
Sebastian Prödl`s towering physique was extremely useful up against Romelu Lukaku, and in the main he kept things simple. Winning headers and knowing when to get rid and when to pass the ball out are so important, and so far it looks like Prödl has the ability to do all of the above.
Valon Behrami and Etienne Capoue were very well balanced in the middle. Yin and yang in their appearance, with Behrami dogged and determined in his attempts to regain possession and Capoue`s big frame purposefully striding into opposition players` paths all game. Much has been made of Behrami`s mistimed challenge on Kevin Mirallas in the second half, but there looked to be no intention to do any damage, and there was no sign of Behrami`s temperament spilling over whatsoever. As previously mentioned, these two are key players under Flores.
Last but not least, José Manuel Jurado showed an Almen Abdi-esque tendency to find space on the ball in the opposition half, and was at the heart of all that was positive about Watford`s attacking play, particularly in the first half. Like Holebas, he noticeably tired after half time, and Flores` decision to substitute him for Ighalo was more than vindicated. It will be very interesting to see what Jurado and Abdi can do in the same team.
Ighalo won't let up
It would be wrong to write about the opening weekend and not mention the exploits of Odion Ighalo. We all know he can do it in the Championship, but I'm sure I wasn't the only one who wasn't sure if he'd be quite as effective in the top tier.
Leaving John Stones and Jagielka on their behinds to score Watford's second was a thing of beauty, and long may the Nigerian's sensational form continue.
Food for thought for next Saturday
How Flores sets his side up at home to West Bromwich Albion next weekend will be very interesting indeed. With many more attacking options available to him than he chose to use at Goodison Park, whether or not Flores chooses to start the likes of Odion Ighalo and Matej Vydra will give us some indication of where the head coach sees his squad at this stage of the season.
Another defensive line up might be more effective while the new squad are still learning how to play with each other. It`s no secret that Watford have made a lot of signings over the summer, and being cautious in attack may be the way that Flores accounts for this. Sacrificing creativity for discipline in the early stages of the season may well be sensible, but this mindset itself potentially sacrifices some of the Hornets` biggest strengths and best players.
However, with home advantage likely to make at least some difference, and against an opposition that are not expected to be challenging for the top positions in the league, Flores might look to control the game rather than soak up pressure. We could see a rather different line up and style at Vicarage Road than what we saw at Goodison Park.
Alessandro Diamanti looks set to sign in the coming days, and Abdi and Berghuis are likely to be not far off full match fitness, with Fernando Forestieri still waiting in the wings. How Flores incorporates the wealth of offensive talent at his disposal will be fascinating, especially given how focused on defensive discipline his approach has been so far.
Roll on the Baggies.