In Watford’s first match under Roy Hodgson, they picked up a clean sheet. Yes, Watford lasted a full ninety minutes without conceding. Admittedly, it was against bottom-of-the-table Burnley who had recently lost their long-time best striker in awful weather conditions, but they nonetheless kept a clean sheet for the first time all season. Defensively, this was a step in the right direction. In 180 minutes of football under Hodgson, the Hornets have only conceded once (which was a shot that took an unfortunate deflection), a remarkable turn of events in the backline for the Hertfordshire outfit. However, what Hodgson has given them has detracted from other areas of the pitch, only shifting a balance rather than creating an outright better one.
Defensive Stability Achieved
In Hodgson’s first two matches as manager of the Hornets, he has fielded a rigid 4-4-2 formation, naming three central-midfielders and Ken Sema as the middle four in his Watford debut, and fielding four central-midfielders in the second. In both matches, their backline consisted of new-signing Hassane Kamara at left-back, recently-arrived Samir partnered with Craig Cathcart at center-back, and Kiko Femenia at right-back.
As mentioned, in two matches under Hodgson, the Hornets have only conceded once to a lucky strike, signaling an immense improvement defensively. Both times out, they conceded fewer than one Expected Goal, a feat achieved only four times in their first 20 matches (source: understat).
The improvement in the defense is a byproduct of the tremendous boost Kamara has provided and the strict organization imposed by Hodgson. The defensive-minded middle four gives the Hornets a much-needed layer of protection for the backline, giving them more time to remain organized and track runners. Unfortunately for Hodgson, this is not without consequences.
Attacking Acumen Compromised
As the middle four have been so defensive-minded in recent matches, the front two have been cut off. The return of Ismaila Sarr from AFCON will provide much-needed help, but simply put, what Hodgson has given Watford defensively, he has taken away almost as much from the attack.
Joshua King and Joao Pedro started as the lone two strikers against Burnley, whereas Emmanuel Dennis and King started against the Hammers. Both times out, the attackers were left too isolated. King would be tasked with holding the ball up for runners to arrive. Oftentimes, the support would not come, and when it did, it would go to the feet of midfielders who are not known for their attacking acumen. Pedro and Dennis were tasked with carrying the ball via intricate dribbles, only to frequently be let down with insufficient or unfavorable help arriving.
Watford average just 0.635 Expected Goals per match since Hodgson arrived, coming against teams who are not necessarily renowned for their defensive strength. With such structure and defensive-mindedness coming from eight of the ten outfield players on the pitch – and sometimes more – there is no wondering why the attack has been suffocated. Of course, this has helped the Hornets become a much better team structurally and defensively. The attacking threat, however, has been compromised. If Hodgson is unable to find a way to start Pedro, Dennis, and Sarr together, then it seems unlikely that the current tactics will give them enough attacking threat, regardless of how much their defense will have improved. The Hornets were never going to be safe if they kept leaking goals. Now, the worry has polarly changed, as they will not be safe if they are incapable of finding the back of the net. Both extremes have been reached this season, so Hodgson needs to find the hopefully-achievable balance.