Guest-written article by Ben Thornhill
Watford’s performances this season can be grouped into two categories. For the purposes of this article, we will call them Jekyll and Hyde.
Jekyll: 4 wins with an xG above 1 (3 of those wins with an xG above 2).
Hyde: 7 defeats and 1 draw, all 7 defeats to nil, all 8 with an xG below 1 (5 of those with an xG of below 0.5).
The Jekyll performances (1/3 of the total) have included some scintillating counter-attacking football and have yielded a whopping 15 goals.
The Hyde performances (2/3 of the total) have included displays where Watford have carried nearly no attacking threat and have yielded a paltry 1 goal.
What can be made of this apparently schizoid outfit? How can they look so promising one week and then revert to something so unconvincing the next? This article will explore some possible explanations for this inconsistent outfit whose latest display (very much in the Jekyll category) versus Manchester United will have had Watford fans dreaming of Premier League safety once again.
Relative Instability of Opposition
Each of the Hornets’ victories this season have come against opposition with a high degree of instability. Aston Villa came to Vicarage Road shortly after the loss of Jack Grealish to Manchester City and, whilst they had spent a considerable amount of money on replacements, such as Emi Buendia and Leon Bailey, Villa were clearly an outfit that were going to have some teething problems, despite having a decent squad on paper. They have since parted company with manager Dean Smith following a run of five defeats, which backs up the point that they have also struggled to find their rhythm.
Victory at Carrow Road over a beleaguered Norwich City was a vital three points for Watford but said as much about the opposition’s wobbly defense as it did any coherence in attack from the Hornets. Before deciding to part ways with Daniel Farke, Norwich were winless in 10 games having conceded 25 goals and were rooted to the bottom of the Premier League.
On the face of it, a 5-2 victory at Everton, a first-ever Watford win at Goodison Park, was a huge win and Claudio Ranieri’s first for Watford. However, Everton were without key players – namely England international Dominic Calvert-Lewin and ex-Hornet Abdoulaye Doucoure. They also have an unpopular manager at the helm in ex-Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez, who is finding it difficult to endear himself to the Goodison Park faithful. With no wins in their last six matches, Everton currently sit bottom of the Premier League form table and are sinking fast.
Then came the 4-1 victory at the weekend over Manchester United. Again, this has to be slightly tempered by the abject display from an opposition who looked like they were waiting for a change of manager. The most damning statistic is United’s Passes Per Defensive Action (PPDA) – a measure of a team’s pressing intensity – of over 24. For some context, the majority of teams in the EPL tend to allow between 7-15 PPDA in most games. By contrast, United themselves allowed only 8.5 PPDA in their 4-1 victory against Newcastle United earlier in the season. So, whilst Watford were impressive, the victory has to be set against the backdrop of the turmoil at Manchester United, which saw Solskjaer lose his job the following day.
Questions That Remain Unanswered
The fact remains that, whilst many of Watford’s performances this season have been alarming, results, to date, have been good enough to see them four points clear of the relegation zone. They also now find themselves four points off of Manchester United in eighth place. This can only be seen as “so far, so good.” However, if they really have turned a corner under Claudio Ranieri, there remain some questions that need to be answered:
Firstly, can Watford hurt well-organized opponents? In games when Watford fans might have hoped for better performances and more points (e.g., at home to Wolves, Southampton, and Newcastle, and away to Brighton and Leeds), Watford’s attacking threat was insignificant and it could be argued that they were lucky to glean the single point that they did from all those fixtures combined. These are the kinds of games so far this season where there has been a significant gap between expectation and performance. To date, it would have to be said that Watford have needed their opponents to have an “off day” in order to create chances and have looked out of their depth against teams who have a well-organized press.
The second question that needs to be answered, and quickly, is: Can Watford keep a clean sheet? So far, the answer has been a resounding “no!” Narrow early season defeats were characterized by defensive lapses in possession and set-pieces which routinely undermined decent defensive work off of the ball. Under Ranieri, Watford shipped five goals against Liverpool and are still yet to keep a clean sheet. With Watford’s next three games being Leicester City (a), Chelsea (h), and Manchester City (h), it would take a bold fan to predict this run of 12 consecutive games without a clean sheet coming to an end any time soon.
Signs of Improvement
However, there are signs that things might be improving for good. As predicted, under Ranieri, Watford have begun to press in packs higher up the pitch, most impressively in their last match against Manchester United. This puts more pressure on the opposition forcing them into errors in their own half, as seen from Tom Cleverley’s vital interception against Manchester United leading to Harry Maguire’s sending off. There is also an active form of defense, in contrast to the relative passivity seen under Xisco Munoz. The press against Manchester United helped to keep the ball in the opponent’s half and made Watford harder to play through, protecting the midfield and defense.
As mentioned in a previous article, Watford were undermining themselves by playing out from the back with players who lack the technical ability to do it and regularly conceding goals from set-pieces. Under Ranieri, they have abandoned playing out with Ben Foster encouraged to be much more direct with his distribution – another tactic that helps to control territory and protect the back four. They are also yet to concede from a set-piece.
The introduction of Nicolas Nkoulou in place of William Troost-Ekong over the past couple of games also looks to have had a positive impact. Nkoulou looks more composed than his teammate in possession, which has given the backline a calmer feel to it, even against “Big 6” opponents. There is some promise, then, that Nkoulou could strike up an effective partnership with either Francisco Sierralta or Christian Kabasele when they return from injury. All of this means that Ranieri is not just plugging the obvious holes seen under Munoz. With the introduction of Nkoulou, there has been a timely upgrade in personnel alongside a more effective press that is both protecting the defense and benefitting the attack.
Although Watford’s best performances this season have come against opponents dealing with problems on and off of the pitch, the Hornets have still had the ability to put those sides away impressively. Without playing well on a consistent basis, they are still keeping away from danger and keeping up with the pack. Currently in the middle of an extremely difficult run of fixtures, they sit a respectable 14th in the form table, which has allowed them to keep their heads above water. Some of the changes that Claudio Ranieri has implemented have Watford looking less vulnerable and more purposeful and they are changes that increase their chances of answering those as of yet unanswered questions. The 4-1 score-line against a club the size of Manchester United could well be the fillip that this squad needs to kick on from being more Hyde and less Jekyll as they seek to find a consistent level of performance and develop a coherent identity as a team.