With 38 goals scored in this weekend’s 10 Premier League matches, Watford’s goalless draw against Bournemouth was certainly an exception to the rule. Both sides ought to have scored – respective xG’s of 0.82 and 0.96 indicate that. Once again, Watford’s profligacy in front of goal was their downfall, with just five goals scored from a total of 127 goal attempts – their 3.9% conversion rate is the lowest in the division. It is now back-to-back home 0-0 draws for Watford, whilst Bournemouth have failed to score in three league matches. Both sides are struggling for goals.
Watford’s reliance on counter-attacks
One explanation for Watford being the lowest scorers this season is the lack of variety in their attacks. As Doucoure’s early chance showed, which he skied over the bar, they were most dangerous when opportunities to counter-attack arose. These occurred after dropping deep out of possession, allowing Bournemouth to have 60% of the ball, in the knowledge that Pereyra’s creativity and Deulofeu’s pace and trickery could cause problems. The issue with their reliance on such moves is that they require speed and precision to be successful. Frequent indecision from Pereyra and Deulofeu allowed Bournemouth to get men behind the ball and following that, Watford found it very difficult to break them down. Quite simply, they lack the creativity to frequently carve out different types of goalscoring opportunities, aside from fast breaks against possession-hungry sides. When done well, this can be devastating as the second-half performance against Arsenal last month showed. However, Quique Sanchez Flores must hone this obvious strength or develop new ways of breaking down opposition defences.
Nonetheless, there were indications on Saturday and against Tottenham that Watford are improving in this regard. Regular switches of play to pick out either wing-back Daryl Janmaat or Adam Masina allowed Watford to change the angle of attack and enter crossing positions. Perhaps the inspiration from this tactic came from Nuno Espirito Santo’s Wolves who beat Watford in late September. They are of course a side that not only often make use of switching the play, but whose foundation are built upon a three centre-back system which the Hornets have switched to in their subsequent three matches. Draws in all three matches indicate improvement from their dismal start to the season. But again, they lacked quality in the final third with this method as despite delivering 19 crosses against Bournemouth, just one was successful – the second worst success rate this weekend. It is clearly a tactic that Watford are working on as Craig Cathcart’s diagonal ball to Janmaat who picked out Doucoure for Watford’s opener at Spurs proved. However, there is plenty of work to do on the training ground to turn the recent solid foundation of their defence into match-winning performances to lift them off the bottom of the league.
The need for Deeney
The imminent return of captain Troy Deeney from a knee injury could well be the spark to turn around their fortunes in front of goal. His leadership on the pitch is sorely missed, but there are also frequently occurring phases of play that a target man like Deeney would hugely benefit Watford. The aforementioned poor crossing is the perfect example of this as Deeney is better served to compete aerially with the likes of Nathan Ake and Steve Cook than Deulofeu or Pereyra. Unless Doucoure made his way into the box, any high balls were only going to be won by Bournemouth. Deeney’s presence would add variety and unpredictability to the balls in from wide, alongside the trickery of others more technically gifted players around him. Such a strike partnership was the cornerstone of Quique Sanchez Flores keeping Watford in the Premier League during his first spell in the 2015/16 season. Deeney and Ighalo scored 28 of Watford’s 40 goals that season, with their comparative strengths supplementing a superb season of goalscoring. Like Ighalo, Deulofeu has the pace to get in behind opposition defences and given that he and Deeney impressed as a duo under Javi Gracia last season, this has to be the answer to their goalscoring problems.
Meanwhile, one less discussed but still important aspect of Watford’s play that Deeney would aid is from goal-kicks. A front two of Deulofeu and Pereyra are not particularly aerially dominant which forced Ben Foster to almost exclusively aim his clearances towards 6’3″ left wing-back Adam Masina. The first couple of these were effective and unsurprisingly so given that it was his first appearance of the season and thus something Bournemouth could not have prepared for. However, the 6’4″ Bournemouth midfielder Philip Billing was swiftly instructed to step across to the right-side during such situations. The nature of Watford’s team prevented them from mixing up the goal-kick routine and the loss of several first balls against Billing from these situations put them on the back foot straight away. This is why sides like Arsenal opt to play out from defence, because they lack aerially dominant players. However, Watford certainly do not have a defender with the passing and composure of David Luiz at their disposal. They have to go long and Deeney’s physical presence will help them to retain the ball more often from goal-kicks.
Philip Billing’s role
As mentioned, one of Philip Billing’s aerial dominance enabled him to impose himself in midfield and clear the danger on several occasions. His 24 clearances so far in 2019/20 is unusually high for a midfielder and rank him higher than any player not to feature in defence this season. Meanwhile, only Wilfried Ndidi (32) his made more than his 26 interceptions. However, Billing tactical responsibilities extend beyond the acts of clearing or intercepting the ball. Operating as the deepest of Bournemouth’s midfielders, he provided the pivot between defence in midfield, often dropping into the middle of a back three when they had possession in their own half. His composure on the ball was utilised at every opportunity as Bournemouth played out from the back. His positioning allowed the centre-backs to split and both full-backs to push higher up and match Watford’s 3-5-2 system, pinning both Janmaat and Masina back out of possession as they were required to mark Diego Rico and Adam Smith. In doing so, Bournemouth nullified Watford’s pressing game and avoided the need to play long towards Josh King and Callum Wilson who were well marshalled by the defensive trio of Kabasele, Dawson and Cathcart throughout. Failing to subsequently pick out the two strikers was a shortcoming by Bournemouth in the match, but that should not totally undermine their use of the ball conducted by Billing in deeper positions. He was without doubt one of the most impressive outfielders in a game otherwise lacking quality.
Howe’s attention to detail
The signing of Billing this summer demonstrate the effectiveness of Bournemouth’s scouting system as well as manager Eddie Howe’s attention to detail. Even in the comparative intensity of the warm-up, it was clear that every aspect of a match day is controlled on a microscopic level. The difference between the two teams in this regard was small but noticeable, such is the bond and cohesion between coaching staff and players built over seven years compared to around seven weeks in Sanchez Flores’ case. It is those marginal gains that can be the difference between relegation and survival.
However, this is merely one of many examples of the finer details on show from the away side and perhaps most notably was their use of set-pieces. As the joint top set-piece scorers so far this season and in 2017/18, sitting tied fifth in 2018/19, Bournemouth’s dead ball productivity is no secret. This owes to a multitude of routines from placing the ball just before the kick is taken to doing several dummy runs to keep the opposition guessing as to who will ultimately deliver the ball. Having a right and left-footer present on a number of routines allows Bournemouth to maintain this unpredictability, helped by Diego Rico’s recent emergence in the absence of fellow left-footer David Brooks. All of this creates uncertainty for the defending team and in a split second they may have conceded a shot or even a goal before being able to react. Bournemouth’s continued high ranking for set-piece goals is once again indicative of Eddie Howe and his coaching staff’s attention to detail on the training pitch.
One final specific example from the game was the way Bournemouth looked to get in behind Watford’s defence. The aerial dominance of the three centre-backs, most notably Craig Dawson, as well as Watford’s retreat to a low block, ensured that efforts to play long balls forward were futile. Where Bournemouth did seek to exploit Watford was in an area of weakness identified in their left channel. Adam Masina was playing in the Premier League for the first time this season and perhaps lacked as much match sharpness as other players, especially in his recovery runs following mandatory bursts forward as a wing-back. In addition, Miguel Britos’ departure this summer left the club without a left-footed central defender, with Craig Cathcart currently slotting into that role. Even though Cathcart ably played long and short passes with his weaker foot and Masina did not look out of place in the match, Bournemouth were able to exploit this minor weakness on several occasions with curled passes into the channel, which either King or Wilson collected. Bournemouth so nearly won the game as a result of one such move with Jefferson Lerma curling a low ball from inside his own half to Josh King who ran into Watford’s left channel in behind Craig Cathcart. His cross gave Arnaut Danjuma Bournemouth’s solitary ‘big chance’ of the game, but Ben Foster typified his man of the match performance with an excellent save. With the margins often so fine in football, this was the perfect example of how Bournemouth nearly won all three points thanks to a feature of their play during the match.
Still winless this season, Watford are desperately in need of points. However, given that in-form Chelsea are the next visitors to Vicarage Road, the run without a league win may extend to 15 matches. Positively, they visit fellow relegation candidates Norwich and Southampton during November with Burnley at home in between. All of the bottom three facing each other in the next five gameweeks provide six-pointer opportunities to kickstart their respective seasons heading into the busy festive period. Saturday’s opponents Bournemouth are set to embark on a trickier run of matches as they take on six of last season’s top seven by Boxing Day. Even if the recently leaky Tottenham, Chelsea and Arsenal defences continue to give up goals, the Cherries need to increasing their productivity in front of goal – their 111 goal attempts is the sixth worst in the Premier League. The return of David Brooks to full fitness during this run will surely do them no harm. Right now, Bournemouth look set to perform in line with their previous four seasons, comfortably avoiding relegation, but with the ingrained philosophy of developing young players sometimes coming at the expense of results. As for Watford, they cannot welcome back Troy Deeney soon enough – his goals and leadership will be invaluable in what already appears to be a precarious battle against the drop.