The Season So Far
Marco Silva’s rejuvenated Watford have been one of the stories of the season so far. They have risen as high as fourth in the Premier League table, beaten Arsenal and displayed flair and fortitude in equal measure. Players like Richarlison, Abdoulaye Doucouré and Kiko Femenía have been excellent, and all three will be on several bigger clubs’ shopping lists come the end of the season. 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 skill and ambition without sacrificing solidity and cohesion, and producing the Premier League’s standout set of results – Burnley aside – so far this season. Best of all was their aforementioned victory over Arsenal, made all the more impressive by its nature as a come-from-behind win. Lesser teams, and Watfords past, would have crumbled after Per Mertesacker put the Gunners ahead at Vicarage Road, but this Watford side is made of sterner stuff.
Spectacular results have already seen the rapidly rising Silva targeted by bigger clubs – Everton had two offers of £10m rebuffed in the last month – but on-pitch successes 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
Sorry to say, 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 consecutive seasons in which bright starts fizzled out, and one which became a close call with relegation.
If the likes of Richarlison and Doucouré keep the standard of recent performances up, and if the entire defensive unit maintains its similarly respectable level of performance, there’s no reason why a 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 said, the Hornets are as guilty as anyone of gaming the modern transfer system and positioning themselves as a stepping stone to greater things for underseen talents and so departures of key players and good managers are to be expected. Indeed, their entire philosophy wouldn’t work without such departures.
And really, given the choice between being Watford, a relatively successful and eye-catching home of various stars of tomorrow, and being a West Ham-style mess, home to has-beens, never-will-bes and other assorted lost souls, there’s only one sensible choice. Long live the Hornets.
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. Special One 2.0 Marco Silva’s ideas are largely based around creating a strong, stubborn spine of the team and creating the conditions to allow for targeted attacking dynamism. The opposition is obsessively analysed and Watford will be fully briefed on where and how they will be attacked on match-day, and where the opponents’ weak spots can be found. Such thorough preparation has allowed them to bloody the noses of stronger teams and demolish sides of similar stature.
Take the opening goal in last week’s 3-0 win at Newcastle, scored by Will Hughes as a perfect example: it all started with a long, right-to-left cross-field switch over the head of Magpies right-back DeAndre Yedlin, repeatedly exposed as the weak link by several such targeted attacks in his zone. Richarlison, hugging the left touchline, clearly knew the switch was coming from deep, and he also knew that at any transition Newcastle’s centre-backs would rush to cover the goal but the midfield wouldn't drop in. Thus, any charge to the byline and subsequent cutback to the edge of the box would all-but guarantee a shot on goal.
Meanwhile, striker Andre Gray knew to charge into the box and pull the defenders where they already wanted to go, and Will Hughes knew that Richarlison had been told to cut the ball back to the space on the edge of the area, so he was already arriving there, all alone, when the ball was played. The finish was relatively simple but brilliantly taken, steered low and true into the far corner.
It looks simple, but watching the goal back you can clearly see how each move was planned by Silva based on the analysis of the opposition, practiced by the players and the coaches on the training pitch, and then brilliantly pulled off on match day. It was ruthless and really special, and Spurs have to be wary of being similarly undone.
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 - 52.2% in first to 43.8% in second, with a league average of 32.9%. Only Manchester City and Manchester United have scored more goals from outside the box and only four teams have scored more goals from set pieces. That’s a hell of a record.
As well as planning and executing simple but devastating NFL-style attacking plays, 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. Only six 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. This translates to a relatively low number of shots allowed on goal and more valuable time spent in attack.
Also, Richarlison. The boy’s a bit special.
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 – Gray has two league goals to his name from 898 minutes this season.
Similarly, Watford have ended up comfortably in midtable despite having the fifth worst save rate of any Premier League team (60.3%). When their luck runs out at one end, their incompetence at the other will surely be highlighted, and their league position will fall.
It’s also worth pointing out that while they have beaten Arsenal and appeared solid and very threatening against sides of similar stature, they lost 6-0 to Manchester City, conceded four in defeats against Chelsea and Manchester United and let in three in a home draw against Liverpool. The big sides generally find opening Watford up quite easy and Spurs should be confident of finding their stride here.
Silva generally fights a 3-4-2-1 with a 3-4-2-1 and goes for it. This may or may not be a good idea.
Watford are a hugely impressive side in good form but they’re not in Tottenham’s league and their defensive record against the other top teams indicates Spurs will have fun in attack here. As respectfully as possible, this writer predicts a 3-1 Tottenham win.