In a match that had officiating controversy and became impossible to watch for some, Watford were able to come out on top by a score-line of three goals to two. Going into the night, Stoke City were sitting level with Watford on points. Now, Watford are only four points off of league-leaders Reading.
The match started off in nightmarish fashion for Vladimir Ivic. In the second minute of play, Stoke were able to unlock Watford following an intricate short-corner routine. Steven Fletcher finished off the move from point blank range to give the Potters the early lead. Watford quickly responded by ensuring they had the lion’s share of possession and subdued Stoke’s attacking chances to counter-attacks and set-pieces only. This response mirrored the rest of the game’s flow, which saw Watford end the match with 66% possession, as well as seven more shots attempted than Stoke.
The hosts seemed to be struggling to erase Michael O’Neill’s side’s lead, as the visitors settled into a simple 4-4-2 defensive block that proved difficult to break down. Watford then were able to slip Ismaïla Sarr behind the backline, whose cross was deflected to the feet of Tom Cleverley. The former Manchester United player was able to make space and unleashed a powerful shot from the edge of the box off of Angus Gunn’s hand, and then the crossbar, to equalize.
That goal is where the main controversy came in. After the shot cannoned down from the crossbar, it appeared to have hit the goal-line, but did not seem to be fully across. Gunn turned around to collect the ball and then was pushed into the net by João Pedro. After a few seconds of waiting, the referee looked at his wrist, and the goal-line technology said there was a goal. So, the official awarded the goal, as he decided that the initial shot from Cleverley was when the ball crossed the goal-line completely, and that the push on Gunn, which made the ball cross the line, was after the goal had occurred. There has been no footage released that gives a clear answer as to whether the ball did indeed cross the goal-line while in the air on the way down from the crossbar, which there is a reasonable chance it did.
Not long after the controversy, the Hive Live service which Watford offers to supporters to live stream matches for a fee crashed. Most Watford fans then had to rely on the audio commentary to learn of what was happening. The rest of the first half was rather uneventful.
Watford forged ahead in the second half after Gunn took down Ismaïla Sarr following a defensive error which played Watford’s record signing in on goal. Young superstar João Pedro subsequently slotted away the penalty to get his fourth goal of the season. The goal was offset 20 minutes later when Nick Powell drove in an impressive 81st minute equalizer against the run of play.
The parity was broken in the 93rd minute of play. Watford were creating the bulk of the chances in the final stages of the match. With time almost up, the ball found itself under control on the left-wing. Ken Sema, perhaps Watford’s best player so far this season, seemed to be contained by a Stoke defender. Once Sema’s marker closed in on him, the Swedish International Team player expertly dropped his shoulder and used his strength to maneuver his way into open space by the byline, and then within the boundaries of the 18-yard-box. With a quick glance up, he spotted Sarr and delivered him a well-played cutback, which the 22-year-old winger neatly slotted away into the keeper’s bottom right-hand corner of the net.
Watford needed this result.
Indeed, the initial hopes for promotion could have been on the verge of being lost if Watford failed to put in a solid performance. After failing to pick up a point against Barnsley and suffering draws to Bournemouth and Wycombe, Watford looked as if their post-relegation/new-manager bounce/good form had come to an alarming end. This match, against a resolute, talented Stoke City team, re-proved that Watford do have what it takes to legitimately be promotion contenders.
Stoke City kept to their firm defensive shape throughout most of the match, so the fact Watford were able to score three times against them shows how the goal-scoring issues from the start of the season have been remedied. This goes down to both the players and the manager for making such an improvement in a relatively short period of time. Yes, Watford do have talented players and would expect plenty of goals with their current attacking options, but the expectation was not really coming to fruition at the start of the season. Now, it is. And, with Troy Deeney and Andre Gray returning, and Stipe Perica set to come back after the international break, Watford certainly seem to have more than enough reinforcements to continue the positive goal-scoring trend which was potentially started by this match (whether this truly is a “trend” cannot be determined with more accuracy until after Watford’s next couple of matches).
Vladimir Ivic’s main cause for concern will be the club’s defensive record. After securing four clean sheets from their opening five fixtures, Watford have failed to keep a clean sheet in their most recent five. Perhaps this will cause Vladimir Ivic to contemplate moving into his signature 4-3-3 formation for experimentation purposes.
Despite the defensive woes, what this match proved is that Watford have what it takes to be one of the league’s best attacking teams. The opening few matches proved Watford have the capability to be one of the league’s best defensive teams. Right now, that perfect balance between attacking threat and defensive soundness has not been met on a match-to-match basis. However, there are lots of reasons to believe that such an equilibrium can be reached with considerable frequency.