During Vladimir Ivic’s days as manager for PAOK Salonika and Maccabi Tel Aviv, he found success using a 4-3-3 formation. In his 91 matches in Israel, he averaged an impressive 2.25 points-per-game. Also telltale of his initial triumphs as a manager is the fact his Maccabi Tel Aviv side averaged 3.5 goals scored per 1 goal conceded (168 goals scored, 48 conceded to be exact). Despite the clear attacking quality Ivic was able to get out of his squad, it was mainly the defensive discipline which Ivic was able to receive from each and every player that earned him the plaudits.
But Ivic, young and ambitious, did not hesitate to shuffle around his tactical setup in order to foil his opposing manager’s preparations. The formation changes also allowed Ivic to ensure he was not forcing his available players into playing in unnatural positions. Still, most Watford fans expected to see his preferred 4-3-3 formation from the get-go.
To the surprise of most, Watford have lined up in a 3 center-back formation for every fixture, so far, this season. Even then, these 3 center-back formations have come with variation. In Watford’s derby triumph over Luton Town, Ivic decided to turn to a 5-3-2 formation, instead of utilizing the 5-4-1 formation which had been deployed in the first 2 league matches.
In the 5-4-1 formation, the defensive setup would always see 4 players in the midfield. In attacking phases of play, the left and right midfielders would push forward and become wingers, creating a modified 5-2-3 formation. This formation saw Watford struggle to gain control of the midfield when trying to conjure up an attacking move from the back-line. With only Cleverley and Chalobah to connect the defensive phase of play to the attacking phase, Watford saw themselves frequently playing “hoofball” to clear their defensive lines, rather than methodically building up the attack. This formation also saw Quina attacking in a somewhat unorthodox wide position, as well as detracted from Ngakia and the left-wing-back’s attacking role (both Femenía and Sema have played in the left-wing-back position this season).
Watford had been able to gain 4 points from 2 matches under the 5-4-1 formation, and the defensive setup was clearly working, considering Ivic’s men did not concede. The defensive positives, however, could not be used to overshadow the underlying issues in the formation. Ivic understood results would not keep coming if nothing changed. So, lo and behold, Ivic did not shy away from rolling the die of formations.
In the 5-3-2 formation, defensively, not much changed, since nothing needed to. The focus of the tactical switch was reclaiming control of the midfield, as well as trying to reintegrate a potentially-staying Ismaïla Sarr. Cleverley was moved up in the midfield in order to play an attacking-step ahead of Chalobah and Garner. With 3 true central-midfielders in the heart of the action both defensively and attacking-wise, instead of the 2 true central-midfielders from before, Watford were able to thoroughly dominate all aspects of midfield play. This overload allowed for intricate buildups to attacks, eliminating the need to send long balls from the center-backs to the forwards.
In terms of the two forwards up top, Pedro was able to play in his natural center-forward position. Ivic allowed Pedro to thrive in his preferred “Firmino” type of area, which consists of occasionally dropping back into a brief CAM role to help create attacking play. Sarr was able to use his central starting point to find himself drifting out to both wings.
Sarr’s drifting to the wings was especially effective in the 5-3-2 formation because of the great extent with which the setup invites the wing-backs to be more involved in attacking play. Two of Watford’s best performers against Luton Town were Ken Sema, who got the assist to Pedro’s goal, and Jeremy Ngakia, who looked equally likely, if not even more likely, to be a goal-provider. The attacking freedom for the wing-backs allows them to show their true quality and skills. After all, these are players who were just in the top-flight, so allowing them to show their full potential every match will lead to plenty of attacking, as well as defensive, success.
One thing is for certain: Ivic will continue to switch up the formation to get the best out of the players available, as well as to make tactically preparing for a match against Watford more tedious. With a fixture list which is abnormally intense in comparison to what Watford has seen the past 5 seasons, squad rotation will be even more necessary than ever. With rotation comes different players with different strong-suits. Always being able to line up in a formation where everyone’s strong-suits can be displayed is the epitome of the adaptability which Ivic has brought to Watford.
What remains to be seen is when, or perhaps even if, Ivic will elect to go to the 4-3-3 formation fans had been yearning to see. If Sarr stays, a 4-3-3 allows him to be able to dominate the right-wing, but at the same time, the formation would detract from the fullbacks’ attacking roles. A center-back would also have to be sacrificed to use this formation. But if Ivic ever decides a 4-3-3 is what is best, then Watford fans should have faith in the method to his madness.
When Watford were relegated and without a manager, the club was on the brink of turmoil. Instead of rushing to appoint a new manager, the hierarchy decided to be methodical and ensure the best man possible would be taking the reins. The season has only just begun, and a lot can change in a very short period of time. Still, there is no denying Ivic has so far been able to get the best out of (most of) his players. With more time is more opportunity to roll the die of formations once, twice, or likely many more times.
The Championship is sometimes said to be the most competitive league in the world. Ivic has ensured Watford have many dimensions, from individual player quality to tactical unpredictability, to compete at the top. But, like all things in football, time will ultimately tell of the successes, or shortcomings, that Ivic has truly brought to Watford.