The Season So Far
Watford’s 2015-16 went better than they had any right to hope it could: Quique Sánchez Flores moulded the Hornets into an obdurate, effective counterattacking team in an unbelievably short amount of time and they had all but secured Premier League survival by Christmas, with a thorough evisceration of Liverpool in December the undoubted highlight of their season. It all went rather badly wrong after that, and Sánchez Flores ultimately lost his job.
Sánchez Flores’ departure shocked many outside Vicarage Road but the reality was that he didn’t seem to have the tools or the desire to diversify the Hornets’ approach, and their reliance on Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney to do literally everything in attack stopped being endearing and became embarrassing by the time May rolled around.
Alec Baldwin Walter Mazzarri as Sánchez Flores’ replacement counted as a major coup for Watford and coming into 2016-17 there was plenty of optimism regarding their chances of securing survival in the short-term and, in the long-term, cementing their status as a Premier League club. While the squad still arguably needs a bit of tinkering if the players are going to flourish in Baldwin's Mazzarri’s favoured counter-attacking system, the Hornets have done enough to suggest their objectives will be easily accomplished.
The Season Ahead
Watford have lost their way of late, winning only one of their last six Premier League games – against rudderless Everton – while losing to the likes of Stoke, Sunderland and West Brom, and losing key creative force Roberto Pereyra to long-term injury. First and foremost, Mazzarri needs to arrest his team’s slide, and preferably reinvigorate the hopeless Ighalo. No player scored more goals in English football in 2015 than the Nigerian forward, who has only one strike to his name so far in 2016-17.
Badly in need of fresh blood, it would be no surprise if Watford spent big in January. The returns to fitness of Isaac Success, Daryl Janmaat and Stefano Okaka, all badly missed, would strengthen as much as any new signings in the upcoming transfer window.
Regardless, Watford’s season will be determined by their results in the coming weeks and their dealings in January. Fail to win and fail to strengthen, and they could be sucked into a relegation battle and things could get ugly. Turn things around with a couple of wins and sign wisely, and they can enjoy a happy journey into mid-table mediocrity.
Mazzarri has usually favoured his signature counterattacking 3-4-2-1 system, but he has regularly varied his approach when trying to fit both Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo into his lineup. His failure to play any other way than 3-4-2-1 at Napoli was ultimately responsible for the demise and collapse of that most iconic of Football Hipster sides, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that Mazzarri built a hell of a team in Naples and, all too briefly, had them playing some unbelievably watchable football.
Given the relative strength of Napoli when compared to Watford, it would have been unreasonable to expect the same results, but obviously Mazzarri has tried to emulate that team’s style, regardless of the formation selected: 100% unsophisticated verticality in attack; a tough, uncompromising defence made up of surprisingly limited journeymen; lots of physicality and combative play all over the pitch.
All of Mazzarri’s favourite ingredients are already in place, and he has done an admirable job of making Watford look like he’s been there much longer than he has – even if it’s rarely easy on the eye.
Probably Watford’s biggest strength is their defensive organisation: everyone knows their role and the defence is usually ably shielded by a deep set midfield. They effectively direct opposition attacks down the flanks and thereby tempt opponents to cross into their box, where their three tall centre-backs await to head the ball clear. Only five teams have won more aerial duels than Watford this season, and this aerial strength is also key to their transitions from defence to attack.
Only three teams have played fewer short passes this season than Watford, who in the true Graham Taylor tradition, have looked to play the ball long over the heads of their midfielders to a big striker, or move the ball up the pitch with dribbles from the wide players. Regular wing-backs Nordin Amrabat and José Holebas lead the team with dribbles, with 2.5 per game and 1.7 per game respectively, while target man Troy Deeney has won a huge 5.3 aerial duels per game, the third highest figure in the Premier League. The entire Spurs defence will be worked hard here, even if the threat is relatively rudimentary.
The obvious weakness is a lack of quality in the starting eleven. While the Hornets’ key individuals are capable of deciding just about any game, they’ve got plenty of mediocrity in their squad and enough in the eleven to make Spurs confident of taking three points simply by being far better.
On a more specific note, their defensive game is hindered by their ridiculously high levels of aggression: no team has made more fouls than Watford’s 14.6 per game this season or received more red cards than their 3, while only Manchester United have been shown more yellows. It’s difficult enough to get from one end of the pitch to the other as it is without the game stopping and the ball turning over every three seconds because one of your midfielders has wiped out the opposition’s playmaker.
Their rudimentary transition game, coupled with their inability to not give away free-kicks, means that Watford’s attack has become even blunter than usual. 11 shots per game is the Premier League’s sixth lowest figure, with far too many players who shouldn’t be shooting taking a large proportion of them. Ighalo has taken 2.3 shots per game this season, contrasted with 2.9 last year, while Deeney’s figure has more than halved from 2.5 to 1.2. It’s certainly true that Watford’s threat was so one-dimensional as to become predictable last year, but getting your best players to shoot less only works if the guys who are shooting more actually have a chance of scoring goals.
Without putting too fine a point on it, Watford are completely unremarkable and bad at many important aspects of football.
Suspensions and injuries have limited Mazzarri’s options and the starting eleven more-or-less picks itself, bar a couple. The formation is hard to predict, but we’ll assume he’ll pick both star strikers and hit them with long balls and crosses, while the lively Nordin Amrabat drifts out to the flanks from a starting number ten position to create overloads and pin Spurs' wide players back.
Don’t be surprised to see Mauricio Pochettino switch to a back three after twenty minutes – although if Spurs open the scoring early, there’ll be no need and this could become another rout.
Watford are really up against it at the moment, badly out of form and with no obvious solution to their problems until reinforcements can arrive in January. Spurs should win here, but that’s not to say it will be a comfortable victory. I’m calling a hard-fought 2-1.