Defending Attacking-Mindedly: Xisco Munoz’s Latest Tactical Masterclass

Heading into the clash against Nottingham Forest, Watford were without many key players. Dan Gosling and Tom Cleverley were sidelined due to injury concerns, while Nathaniel Chalobah missed out thanks to a two-match ban. Carlos Sanchez had only just signed for the Hornets. So, Will Hughes was the Hornets’ only (senior) central midfielder with Championship minutes available for the match. 

Philip Zinckernagel played in a less-natural central-midfield position against Wycombe the match prior. Ken Sema slotted into the heart of the pitch on three occasions for Udinese last season. Nonetheless, the lack of true midfield depth appeared destined to haunt the Hornets. However, Xisco Munoz called for familiar, yet new, tactics – a genius choice which prominently helped Watford beat Chris Hughton’s side.

Tactics Temporarily Tweaked For The Better

Watford have picked up 18 out of 21 possible points since switching to the 4-3-3 formation – a large reason why the central-midfielder lack of depth is problematic. Any sizeable veering from the successful formation would be risky and most likely costly. So, even with a lack of true central midfielders available, Xisco fielded a variant of the 4-3-3 anyway.

The formation used can be better described as a 4-1-4-1, with Will Hughes playing in a deep-lying central-defensive midfield role. Zinckernagel and Joao Pedro played as the attacking midfielders. The change in formation was not much of a formation change at all: the 4-1-4-1 is simply a 4-3-3 with an attacking-minded midfield triangle (as opposed to a less polarized/flatter midfield). 

One key benefit to fielding Pedro and Zinckernagel as attacking midfielders is overlapping runs were more encouraged. Whenever Watford got numbers forward, having five attackers on the pitch helped the Hornets have more intricacy in attacking movements. Admittedly, Watford only scored once, but a handful of other decent chances were made – which was more than good enough considering a new, make-shift tactic was being used for the first time. After all, Pedro had never played as a central midfielder before the match. 

The main reason why having Pedro and Zinckernagel as attacking midfielders was tactically genius, however, is highlighted in the manner that the Hornets played without the ball. 

Midfield Tempo Nullification

James Garner returned to Vicarage Road for the first time since his loan with Watford was terminated by Manchester United. The highly-rated midfielder has performed considerably well since joining Nottingham Forest at the end of January. Hughton’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation allows Garner more time on the ball from a defensive-midfield role than he was offered with the Hornets. Xisco knew Hughton wanted to use their two deeper-lying midfielders to set the tempo of the match. Lining up in a 4-1-4-1 nullified that threat.

For spells in the second half, Nottingham Forest were in the ascendancy. But, for the majority of the match, Watford were dictating the play. The key reason for the Hornets’ controlling of the match is that Garner and Ryan Yates (who was subbed off in the 57th minute for Cafu) were unable to get the time on the ball they thrive off of.

By fielding two attacking midfielders, Garner and Yates were almost always suffocated by pressure as soon as they picked up possession. The midfield triangle fielded by Hughton’s side was nullified because the points of Watford’s midfield triangle matched up with the opposition’s. This did certainly give their attacking midfielder Filip Krovinovic more space to roam, but the ever-reliable Hughes dealt with him well. The subtle staggering of the midfield made all the difference in the match.

Defending Offensively 

In being forced to start two attackers in the midfield, Xisco knew the starting eleven was inevitably going to have a forward-thinking mindset. With five attackers on the pitch, the squad is naturally going to seek to pick up the ball in dangerous positions through pressing, rather than sit back and soak up the pressure. Through Pedro and Zinckernagel, Watford halted Nottingham Forest’s engine. By using an attacking-minded line-up and having the make-shift midfielders closing down the opposition’s defensive midfielders, the Hornets prevented Nottingham Forest from registering a single shot on target.

Proof Xisco called for an attacking-minded defensive tactic was when Sanchez entered the fray. “La Roca,” as he is nicknamed, almost exclusively played as a defensive midfielder throughout his career. But, when he came on for Andre Gray (and Pedro was moved to the central-forward position), Sanchez did not drop back to play alongside Hughes. He did not change the direction of the Hornets’ midfield triangle. From start to finish, Xisco ensured Garner and Co. could not dictate the tempo – exactly what Hughton knew he needed his side to do to get a result. 

The Hornets were forced into making midfield changes. There is a chance that the 4-1-4-1 is not utilized again this season. Still, Xisco cleverly used his limited resources and put together a subtle, yet applaudable, tactical masterclass. The Spaniard should use this match as an example that slight formational tweaks (while still sticking to a variant of the 4-3-3) can make all the difference in the push for promotion. 

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