The Season So Far
Marco Silva’s rejuvenated Watford are in dreamland at the moment, sitting in fourth and having already played Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal to boot. Their solitary defeat remains the 6-0 thumping at the Etihad, but the devastation Pep Guardiola’s side are currently leaving in their path basically excuses that result. The Hornets have been a breath of fresh air, a completely different beast to Walter Mazzarri’s unwatchably dour outfit from last season.
Obviously manager Silva must take the lion’s share of the credit, instilling flair and ambition without sacrificing solidity and cohesion and producing the Premier League’s standout set of results so far this season. Best of all was last week’s late victory over Arsenal, made all the more impressive by its nature as a come-from-behind win. Lesser teams would have crumbled after Per Mertesacker put the visitors ahead, but this Watford side is made of sterner stuff.
Spectacular results have also helped Silva see off potential controversies: club captain and Hornets hero Troy Deeney has been dropped to the bench and formerly key players Étienne Capoue and Craig Cathcart haven’t seen anywhere near as much action as expected. Had things gone badly, unrest in the stands and in the dressing room would have bordered on the fatal kind, and the affable Portuguese would most likely have been joining the Frank De Boer Association For Quickly Dismissed Coaches. As it is, however, Silva is fast becoming a hero himself.
The Season Ahead
As we’ll see later, there’s good reason to think this Watford bubble will soon burst, but for now Hornets fans will be content to keep enjoying the ride and to see where it takes them. A safely mid-table finish with watchable football will be seen as a riproaring success after two seasons in which bright starts fizzled out, and one which became a close call with relegation.
If the likes of Richarlison and Abdoulaye Doucouré keep the standard of recent performances up, and if the entire defensive unit maintains its similarly high level of performance, there’s no reason why a respectful mid-table finish isn’t achievable — and finishing in the top half will become an increasingly realistic aim as time progresses. The only downside would be that, having achieved something so impressive, Silva, Richarlison and Doucouré would quickly be enticed away to bigger clubs.
That’s a way off in the future, though, and for now Watford fans won’t care a jot.
As we saw at Hull last season, Marco Silva’s ideas are largely based around creating a strong, stubborn spine of the team and creating the conditions to allow for attacking dynamism. Watford have most commonly played a narrow 4-2-3-1, closing off their opponents’ passing angles in central zones and aiming to limit them to slow-moving attacks which take them into unpromising areas.
In attack, the eye-catching Brazilian Richarlison has been trusted to carry their attacking threat from the left, with 41% of all Watford’s attacks coming down his side this season. Experienced Greek wing-back José Holebas has provided support on the overlap and Chelsea must be careful of becoming exposed on that flank, especially with Cesc Fàbregas likely to start as the right central midfielder and show his usual lack of interest in defending or holding a defensive position.
While Watford are hardly the most prolific in terms of creating chances, they’re overperforming hugely in terms of converting them: more than half of their shots on target this season have resulted in goals, giving them easily the highest conversion rate in the league. For reference, the average figure is 30.9%. Watford are yet to hit the post and no team has scored more goals from outside the box. That’s a hell of a record.
Their level of organisation and their work-rate are also visible in the numbers: the Hornets place third in the league for interceptions per game (13.9), fourth for clearances per game (29.6) and fifth for offsides won per game. Only seven teams have played less football in their half this season and no team to have played less in their own half has had so little possession. Marco Silva is quickly showing himself as a master of dominating territory without dominating the ball, and in a league as competitive as this, that’s a great ability to have.
Additionally, their team now looks trustworthy and able throughout, with a solid spine and enough creativity and skill in the attacking players to worry even the best teams.
The obvious weakness is that Watford’s shooting figures are completely unsustainable. They can’t keep scoring screamers from distance, and eventually the shots currently sneaking inside the post will start ricocheting off it and bouncing clear. No team can realistically expect to post conversion figures 20% above the average for any real length of time, much less a team playing André Gray as a lone striker every week.
Similarly, Watford have ended up in fourth despite having the second worst save rate of any Premier League team (55.6%). When their luck runs out at one end, their incompetence at the other will surely be highlighted, and their league position will fall. Their Expected Goals ratio puts them 13th in the Premier League, and that’s a more realistic reflection of their statistical performance than their actual position in the table.
Last weekend Marco Silva experimented with a 3-4-3, matching up to Arsenal and notably to Chelsea, but he abandoned the formation during the game and returned to his trusted 4-2-3-1, so we should expect a familiar starting eleven in that formation here.
Chelsea are currently suffering a niggle crisis as opposed to a full-blown injury crisis, with several players facing late calls over their suitability for selection before the game. After another unexpected defeat to a theoretical whipping boy, Antonio Conte knows there’s no more room for slip-ups if the Blues are to defend their title, so we should expect as strong an eleven as can be fielded.
Watford’s luck is going to start running out here. 3-0 Chelsea.
(Post-Palace defeat author’s note: no apologies will be made for the overconfidence of pro-Chelsea predictions made in this column.)