Guest-written article by Ben Thornhill
I always remember Rafael Benitez, when in charge of Newcastle, saying a Spanish proverb about what happens when you have an undersized quilt: you either have to cover the toes and leave the shoulders cold or pull it over your shoulders and risk getting cold feet.
He was describing the dilemma he faced when having a squad with limited quality facing superior opposition. If a manager decides to sit deep and tight, then his team may struggle to score goals in order to be firmer in defence. The person in charge must decide whether the defensive stability is worth the attacking sacrifice. The evidence from the season so far suggests that Xisco, a coach who knows Benitez very well from their time together at Valencia (when Xisco was Benitez’s player), has a similar problem on his hands.
In the first three games of the season, Watford, without the ball, have defended deep and narrowly with a reasonable degree of success. Apart from the 1st hour against Brighton, where the Seagulls’ 3-4-3 formation with wing-backs pushing high up the pitch to expose the space in between Watford’s narrow full-backs and wingers who appeared to not have been briefed to track them, the Hornets have looked like they can contain sides when not in possession. Even at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, Watford were rarely overrun, and the players looked well-drilled in their defensive shape.
The trade-off for this desired defensive solidity is that it inevitably limits the amount of possession and time Watford have in the opposition’s final third. Teams that take this approach tend to have a lower xG, although there is the opportunity to create high-quality chances on the counterattack, a tactic designed to get the best out of Watford’s most-prized asset, Ismaila Sarr. After three games, Watford’s xG is 2.35, so on current form, they would be expected to average less than one goal per match. Only Arsenal have a lower number of expected goals, with an xG statistic of 1.77. This figure shows that Watford are getting cold shoulders whilst attempting to keep their toes warm.
There are mitigating factors here: two games away from home, a new-look front line, a new-look midfield, decent opposition, and a busy window with a lot of incomings as well as some major leaders heading out of the exit door. Results can improve. There is quality in the squad. But, given that between October 16th and December 4th, Watford have a frightening run of fixtures (Liverpool, Everton, Southampton, Arsenal, United, Leicester, Chelsea, and Manchester City), there is not a lot of time to get the balance right and build momentum.
The relatively low xG might also be less of a problem if plan A (defend and counterattack) was not being undermined by defensive errors in two key places: set-pieces and playing out from the back. So far, Watford have conceded five goals, four of which have come from defensive errors: Masina giving away a needless penalty late on against Villa, poor marking at a corner against Brighton, giving the ball away trying to play out of the back (also against Brighton), and totally missing a cross and allowing it to hit the back of the net from a free-kick against Spurs. These are the kinds of errors that Watford must cut out if they are to re-establish themselves in the Premier League. They are shooting themselves in the foot if they are setting up to defend and then gifting the opposition goals. Conceding in this way is a double punishment because they are already, to a degree, sacrificing their ability to get at the opposition and utilize the attacking threats they possess. This completely undermines the ambition of trying to earn the title, “hard to beat.”
Set-pieces are something that have to be addressed on the training ground and hopefully, like other teams in the top-flight, Watford have started to recruit specialists in this department who can steady the ship.
The more prominent quandary for Xisco is playing out from the back. The whole point of doing this is to stretch the pitch and draw the opposition up the field, opening up spaces between the lines beyond the press. From what has been seen so far, the Watford defensive line, and, in the absence of Will Hughes, arguably the midfield, lacks the quickness of feet and technical ability to execute this successfully. Supporters have seen ample evidence from William Troost-Ekong, both this season and last, that he can be pressed into wayward passes leading to chances, or, as was the case at Brighton, goals; Daniel Bachmann’s distribution in the game against Spurs was noticeably dodgy; Masina and Cathcart have found themselves trying to play down dead-ends on numerous occasions; Peter Etebo does not necessarily appear to consistently have the same confidence on the ball as Hughes.
Hughes was the keystone in the switch of formations that drove Watford to promotion last season. He is a player who can take the ball under pressure with his back to goal, squirm out of challenges, and keep the ball stuck to his left foot. Capable of playing on the half-turn and threading passes between the lines to progress the team up the pitch, Hughes was Watford’s heartbeat. His absence leaves a huge void because not only could he do the defensive and positional work that Etebo seems capable of, for he was great in transition with the ball too.
There are many issues with playing out from the back with the current personnel, as well as big shoes to fill for anyone who steps into the deep-lying defence-to-attack conduit role. It remains to be seen whether the new squad can adapt and improve in a short space of time. More likely, Xisco is going to have to consider a change in tactics, shape, or personnel. Fortunately, with the squad at his disposal, there are options.
Should Xisco choose to abandon the current tactic altogether, Watford could play more direct from goal kicks and look for second balls with the new combative central midfielders looking to advance up the pitch in that manner.
Xisco could also consider adopting the 4-2-3-1 shape which supporters have had glimpses of at times under his stewardship. This would mean that the defence would have an extra deep-lying midfielder to play out to. This formation tweak could also allow for Cucho Hernandez or Joao Pedro to be deployed in a central-advanced playmaker role that might give the side the creative spark it needs going forwards.
A change of personnel could include bringing in the likes of Kiko Femenia, Danny Rose, and Ozan Tufan in a bid to give Watford the technical players required to pull off playing out from the back more convincingly. Although the impact Tufan will make is anyone’s guess, Femenia and Rose could certainly add a touch of surety in possession at full-back and the ability to play a quick one-two with teammates to progress the ball up the pitch in a different way to Cathcart and Masina if given the attacking license.
In summary, there is a lot of food for thought over the next few days for the Watford head coach. How will he deploy his metaphorical quilt? Should he risk pulling it up and leaving the toes exposed? Are Watford sacrificing their ability to get the best out of a mouth-watering group of eager young forwards if they persist as they are? Or is sticking to the plan and working through the problems that have emerged to date and trusting in the system worth it? Regardless of the answer, one thing is for certain: Watford cannot afford to give up cheap defeats because, with the relentless nature of the Premier League, before they know it, they will be staring down the barrel of seven games out of eight against opposition with either European or title ambitions in the run-up to Christmas. So, once again, Watford do not have too much time to remedy their weaknesses.