The Season So Far
Watford seemed to have turned a corner. The Pozzo family’s insanely prolific hiring-and-firing of managers seemed to be a thing of the past. They’d made long-term-ish signings, hired a young, ambitious manager and started the season playing like a proper football team, not a complex, scheming, shameless cabal of profiteers, each using Watford as a stepping stone and looking to do just well enough over the course of a few months to climb a rung on football’s career ladder.
There was so much to like about this rejuvenated Watford, so many reasons to fall for one of the stories of the season so far. Marco Silva. Richarlison. Marco Silva. Abdoulaye Doucouré. Marco Silva. Kiko Femenía. Marco. Silva. The Hornets rose as high as fourth in the Premier League, beating Arsenal and thoroughly outplaying several teams around them in the table, all while displaying flair and fortitude in equal measure. Their brilliantly analysed, planned, rehearsed and executed opener away to Newcastle in November was one of the goals of the Premier League season.
And then suddenly Watford reverted to type. Marco Silva remembered that he was acting rather too much like a committed manager to fit with the Hornets’ image and decided to be a complex, scheming, shameless profiteer after all. The Portuguese angled for a move to Everton after barely five minutes aboard the Vicarage Road stepping stone and, with that, the game was up.
The players, who had been performing far too much like players, also went back to being complex, scheming, shameless profiteers. Troy Deeney decided he wasn’t a footballer after all, but a cage fighter and dedicated himself to committing random acts of extreme violence against opposition players. The stories of indiscipline, apathy and anger piled up, as did the defeats, and Silva went from being flavour of the month to damaged goods. In mid-January he was gone, discarded without so much as a ‘thank you’ and replaced by Javi Gracia.
So much for having turned a corner. Now Watford just seem more Watford than ever.
The Season Ahead
While it may be logical to think that morale must be on the floor and that it’s all downhill from here following this latest debacle and an ugly confrontation between fans and players at Southampton, such ideas may prove to be misguided. This writer has been a big fan of new manager Javi Gracia’s for years and has high hopes and expectations for the former Málaga coach.
Gracia’s tactical acumen is truly special, and watching his Málaga sides not just shut out Luis Enrique’s Barcelona but leave them thoroughly exasperated was remarkable. Former charges speak of an obsessive workaholic with excellent communication and man-management skills, and even though he may tend to be on the defensive side, there’s little reason to doubt his ability to reinvigorate a Watford side which badly needs to be given a new identity (again).
With his hand forced by injuries and suspensions as well as transfer market ongoings, Javi Gracia has changed system and line-up in each of his games as Watford manager so far. This is his home debut as coach and one suspects he’d like to make a statement for the home fans, but against opponents as formidable as Chelsea he’ll probably play a spoiling game and turn this game into another attack-vs-defence exercise, the likes of which we’re seeing more and more in the Premier League.
We should expect a deep and very well-organised low-block, most probably in a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-1-4-1, with an outside chance of a 3-1-4-2. Watford will try to close the spaces in the number ten zone, where Eden Hazard is at his most damaging, and drive the Blues wide, so they attack through Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso instead of Hazard.
Their attack is likely to be mainly advanced through long passes towards Deeney or André Gray, depending on who is selected as the main striker, with Richarlison Hazarding around between the left flank and the number ten zone, the same way Bournemouth’s attackers did to such great effect on Wednesday evening.
Watford are hardly the most prolific in terms of creating chances, but they’ve been overperforming hugely in terms of converting them: at one point more than half of their shots on target resulted in goals, giving them easily the highest conversion rate in the Premier League. Of course, Watford don’t have the best finishers in the league and as this figure has regressed to the mean their results have predictably dipped, but nonetheless their conversion rate remains the highest in the division, some 13% above the league average. Only six teams have scored more goals from outside the box or from set pieces and only four teams have scored more headers.
Like Marco Silva, Javi Gracia is an expert at dominating territory without dominating the ball, and in a league as competitive as this, that’s a great ability to have. Only four teams have played less football in their half than Watford this season and no other team to have played less in their own half has had so little possession. This translates to a relatively low number of shots allowed: only six teams have conceded fewer efforts on their goal.
Also, we have to talk about Richarlison. The boy’s a bit special, although he’s slowed up recently due to the inevitable fatigue that comes from having played without a break since April.
The obvious problem is that Watford’s shooting figures are completely unsustainable. They were never going to keep scoring screamers from distance or realistically expect to post conversion figures 20% above the average for any real length of time. The smash-and-grab win against Arsenal was great, but it was just that: smash-and-grab. For all their brilliance in certain games, too many of their goals were unrepeatable and too many of their big wins were against the run of play.
Furthermore, Watford excelled under Silva, at least for a while, despite having the second-worst save rate of any Premier League team, almost as bad as Liverpool’s and as far below the league average as their scoring rate was above it. When their luck ran out at one end, their incompetence at the other was highlighted, and their league position fell.
It’s also worth pointing out that while they have beaten Arsenal and usually appeared solid and threatening against sides of similar stature, Watford got smashed by Manchester City, Chelsea, Manchester United and let in three in a home draw against Liverpool. The big sides generally find opening Watford up quite easy and Javi Gracia will have his work cut out to prevent an ugly repeat here.
Watford’s system is hard to predict due to the aforementioned recent upheaval at the club, but we can make a reasonable guess as to the personnel. Expect this line-up or very similar.
As for Chelsea, while we never thought it would come to this, Olivier Giroud is Antonio Conte’s big hope and will be key to playing around Watford’s deep block.
Even following such a dire collapse as the Bournemouth defeat and the subsequent reports that Antonio Conte’s tenure as Blues manager is coming to a bitter end, this writer has confidence in Chelsea. A surprisingly routine 2-0 win awaits.