In a poll administered by Watford Opinions, 90% of respondents believed Watford should shift to a 4-3-3 formation.
Watford’s recent 1-1 draw to QPR saw some controversial tactics deployed by Vladimir Ivic. The Serbian manager elected to start the game with a 5-2-3 formation, which allowed Watford to have a formidable front three of Andre Gray, João Pedro, and Ismaïla Sarr. Pedro was a bit less involved in the left-wing position in comparison to when he starts matches centrally, but Sarr was getting plenty of opportunities to be both goal-scorer and provider.
Prior to the international break, Ivic was choosing to implement a 5-3-2 formation, which looked rather strong, considering Watford were able to go into the break with a two-match winning-streak. Nevertheless, fans were excited to see that the 5-2-3 was being employed against QPR, especially now that Étienne Capoue is back and fully integrated into the squad (so losing control of the midfield with one fewer midfield player wasn’t a major risk). Nevertheless, despite Watford having plenty of attacking threat in the 5-2-3, control of the midfield was absent. So, at halftime, Ivic decided to bring on Domingos Quina and Troy Deeney for Gray and Pedro in order to solidify control of the midfield by shifting back to the 5-3-2 formation.
The Hornets achieved control of the midfield, but only in the very center of the pitch. Instead, QPR looked to wreak havoc on the Watford defense by working their way down the flanks and putting teasing balls into the box, and were successful on a few occasions. Watford were pinned in their defensive blocking for nearly the entire second half.
So, where did it all go wrong with the simple formation change? Ivic wanted to regain control of the midfield, but, in doing so, he sacrificed Watford’s attacking threat, which further allowed QPR’s pressure to be relentless. The second period of play resembled Watford’s play during Project Restart, which consisted of soaking up pressure and then hoping that “hoofball,” as fans have come to call it, would be enough to spark counter-attacks and pick up points. But, even in the Championship, that’s not a recipe for sustained success.
The 5-3-2 has worked this season for Watford, but QPR were able to counter it by not allowing the Hornets to have possession and by pressing whenever Ivic’s men would win the ball. When Deeney or Sarr received the ball in attack, there was very little support. And this is not to say Deeney and Sarr don’t have what it takes to score as the two up top, as both are quality players. The fact that Watford looked so poor after losing one attacking player is what makes one wonder if it’s time for a change in tactics.
The 5-2-3 saw a lack of control in the midfield. The 5-3-2 saw Watford lose their attacking threat and ability to counter-attack effectively. This is why a 4-3-3 formation, the formation Ivic utilized most frequently during his time in Israel, seems enticing. There are drawbacks for sure, including potentially sacrificing Sema’s ability to get forward from a defensive position (though he could play on the left-wing too) and needing to have the center-backs become reacclimated to playing with only one partner instead of two.
The positives of lining up in a 4-3-3, however, seem to outweigh the negatives. Midfield control would be solidified and attacking threat would be present. Sarr would get to operate in his preferred, most-natural right-wing position. The center-backs would enjoy more rest, as starting three center-backs in every match during a period where there are multiple matches per week is not sustainable from a fitness standpoint. Additionally, Watford’s center-backs have plenty of talent, so starting three for extra defensive solidity in every match does not seem practical when support is more needed in other phases of play.
One main reason Ivic has not gone to the 4-3-3 yet is Adam Masina’s injury, as he is Watford’s only true, senior, out-and-out left-back. He is set to return within the next month. Still, Femenía has played well in the left-back position before. Ngakia could fill in on the right, as he is deserving of more playing time, and Sema could even be pushed forward to the left-wing role. Sema, who can play many positions, could also fall back into the left-back role. There are plenty of exciting lineup permutations Ivic can choose from in a 4-3-3. When Masina returns, the 4-3-3 is nearly imperative.
Watford have one of the best teams in the Championship on a player-by-player level. The Hornets have the personnel to score multiple times every match and never be dominated in the midfield. Ivic, in the past, has been known for his tactical unpredictability. Even with one of the best squads in the league, a change in tactics could very well be the slight edge Watford need to be promoted. A good squad alone is not usually enough.
There is a reason Ivic is in charge. The coaching staff and hierarchy will know what’s best. But still, supporters are allowed to speculate and come to their own conclusions, and the need for a 4-3-3 is becoming a common consensus amongst fans. Do not be surprised to see it become the consensus amongst the people within the club in the very near future. Having Ivic, an expert in quickly training for a new shape, in charge means a new manager will not be needed to enable the squad to effectively implement such tactical changes.
Ivic used to roll the tactical die with frequency. Such gambles will likely be seen in the near future, with promotion as the attainable jackpot.