The Season So Far
Watford have performed beyond their supporters’ wildest dreams so far this season. Currently 7th in the table, one point off a Champions League place, the Hornets have not lost to a single team below them in the table this season and are making a mockery of pundits’ predictions that they would sink without a trace in their first Premier League campaign since 2006-07.
Suave, dapper, sophisticated, charming, handsome manager Quique Sánchez Flores (*swoon*) has done a magnificent job in his short time at Vicarage Road, following on from a mad promotion season in which there were four permanent Watford managers. Sánchez Flores has made them hard to beat and supremely well-organised, and although they sometimes leave a lot to be desired in terms of their attacking play, the individual heroics of front two Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney have continued to propel them up the table. Last weekend’s comprehensive 3-0 victory over Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool™ was a high point in Watford’s history.
The Season Ahead
No Watford fan expects this form to last, and their slide back down the table is expected to begin in earnest over the Christmas period: their festive schedule must be the toughest in the league, with Chelsea (a), Tottenham (h) and Manchester City (h) most likely leading to three defeats from three.
That said, they’re only four wins from getting to 40 points and everyone’s favourite arbitrary ‘safety’ mark, so even when results do tail off, the fans are unlikely to grumble too much. Surely 17th place would have been their target before the season and they seem certain to finish much higher.
Keeping hold of Ighalo, who has scored 28 league goals in 2015, as well as the likes of Etienne Capoue and Allan-Roméo Nyom, who have had very eye-catching seasons in their own right, could be very difficult, but the Pozzo family’s gigantic scouting network should ensure that unheard of but incredible replacements are found.
Quique Sánchez Flores has done a hell of a lot of work on the training ground to get his ideas across and it has paid off handsomely. Their tactics are tailored to their standing and their objectives: they need to stay up, which means they need to avoid losing lots of games. Unsurprisingly, they’ve been extremely hard to beat right from the first day of the season.
They play a compact, disciplined and reactive 4-4-1-1, with very little space between the lines, lots of pressure on the ball and massive work-rate. They tend to play a relatively high defensive line but their midfield sits right in front of it and the forwards drop deep to hassle the opposition’s midfield. There’s basically no way to get through them.
On the attack, they get the ball forward as quickly as possible and look to take the opposition by surprise with the directness and composure of Ighalo and Deeney. It’s not the most sophisticated offensive plan in the world but it works.
First and foremost, Ighalo and Deeney are on fire. The two strikers have twelve and five goals respectively, meaning they’ve scored seventeen of Watford’s 21. The two are also Watford’s leading assist-makers: Deeney has four and Ighalo two. It’s arguable that this balance is unhealthy, but for now it’s working and winning Watford points.
Secondly, they defend really well. Really, really well, in fact. Despite having had the 5th lowest average possession figure this season, meaning their opponents usually having the lions’ share of possession, twelve sides have conceded more shots on their goal this season. Even more impressively, only five sides have allowed fewer shots from inside their own box. Unsurprisingly, they have the fifth highest save percentage in the league.
Such defensive rigour is down to their reactive tactics and their huge work-rate off the ball: the Hornets have made a high number of tackles per game (20.4 - 7th in the league), interceptions (18.6 - 4th) and fouls (11.8 - 4th). Although their fixture list suggests they will begin to lose lots of games, these numbers suggest their slump shouldn’t be too disastrous.
It’s also worth drawing attention to all-action midfielder Capoue, who is having a quite ridiculous season in the centre of the pitch. So far he’s recorded averages of three tackles per game, 2.8 interceptions, 2 fouls, 1.7 clearances, 1.7 dribbles and 1.4 shots, as well as making 49.6 passes per game, at least 11 more than any other Watford player. If he could actually score goals he’d be the Premier League’s Arturo Vidal.
If there’s a weakness in this team it’s the fact that their attacking is rudimentary at best. They average a mere 46.1% possession, have the third lowest pass completion rate in the league and the third lowest number of successful dribbles per game. Their game is heavily skewed towards defensive solidity and it shows.
There’s also an obvious lack of individual flair – likely wide-men Ikechi Anya and José Manuel Jurado are unlikely to trouble Chelsea’s full-backs, although Jurado is undoubtedly a tidy footballer. Watford have been actively looking at bringing in a more explosive wide player and seemed likely to sign Juan Iturbe on loan from Roma with a view to a permanent deal, but baulked at paying an excessive transfer fee in the summer.
Also, for a side so well-organised, it’s a surprise that they’re not better from attacking set pieces: only two of their 21 Premier League goals so far this season have come from dead balls. They have plenty of height and power in their side but they’re perhaps lacking someone who can put a ball on a sixpence to exploit this strength.
The gruelling Christmas schedule could see both managers rotate their line-ups so to some degree predicting XIs is futile. That said Watford haven’t made too many changes this season and they’re in amazing form, so a familiar line-up shouldn’t be a surprise. Guus Hiddink also seems pretty unlikely to make many changes.
Chelsea to edge it by a goal – 2-1.