“We’ve got super Nigel Pearson, he knows exactly what we need,” was the chant which rang out around Vicarage Road as Watford turned over soon-to-be Premier League, world and European champions Liverpool in February.
That game was an outlier, in more ways than one. In their last ten Premier League matches, Watford have accrued just six points and lost six times. Alarmingly, that’s worse than Quique Sánchez Flores’ second spell in charge of the Hornets. The likeable Spaniard claimed seven points, losing five times before being sacked again.
Pearson’s honeymoon period – which comprised a six-game unbeaten run including four wins – seems a long time ago. Watford have been wretched in all but 20 minutes of their three games since Project Restart got underway.
Watford since the restart
Against Leicester, they gradually grew into things after the Foxes dominated the early proceedings. Craig Dawson‘s last-gasp equaliser was deserved after a much-improved second-half display.
But Watford were limp at Burnley and never truly worked the shaky Nick Pope. They were worse still at home to Southampton and did not have a single effort on target. Their xG for that defeat? A miserable 0.48.
Since football resumed on June 17, no team has lost possession more than Watford (547 times), the Hornets are 17th for completed passes (633) and second for long passes attempted (225).
The visualisation above shows Watford’s passing networks pre- and post-restart. The more pronounced the arrow, the more frequent the passes. In the last three games, goalkeeper Ben Foster aiming for striker Troy Deeney has been Watford’s preferred approach.
It hasn’t worked.
Not that there’s anything wrong with going direct. The pace of Sarr and Gerard Deulofeu either side of Deeney is Watford’s best weapon. Getting Sarr in behind Andy Robertson was exactly how the Hornets stunned Liverpool. But against Burnley’s deep defensive line and regimented full-backs, space was at a premium.
The problem facing Watford
The season-ending knee injury Deulofeu suffered against Liverpool has given Pearson a headache. His replacement, Roberto Pereyra, is a completely different player.
Denoted by the LAM marker above, we can see Pereyra – who isn’t particularly quick – drifted inside against Burnley. That wouldn’t be such a problem but left-back Adam Masina isn’t predisposed to attack. The Italian’s average position is no further forward despite having space ahead of him to drive into.
Robbed of Deulofeu’s game-winning ability, Pearson has had to think again.
Against Leicester, Pereyra was listless. He completed just seven first-half passes before being replaced by Danny Welbeck. The former Arsenal striker then kept his place for the trip to Burnley. Watford ostensibly played 4-4-2 with Tom Cleverley coming in on the left and Welbeck partnering Deeney.
That didn’t have the desired effect and Cleverley was hooked at half time. Watford switched back to a more familiar 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1 shape (below).
This result was Welbeck and Sarr getting wider, stretching the pitch and contributing to a total of 30 attempted crosses. That’s more than any Watford game since the restart. However, Sarr’s tendency to deliver low balls to the near-post is a sore point – dissected here by The Athletic’s Adam Leventhal.
All of which has led to Watford failing to create a ‘Big Chance’ since the draw with Leicester. Something has to change if Pearson can add another Great Escape to his CV. As Watford simply cannot defend, he must find a way to get more from his attack.
What could Pearson do?
Returning to 4-2-3-1 is vital. Abdoulaye Doucouré has thrived in a more advanced role since Pearson was appointed in mid-December. The Frenchman isn’t the only one. Will Hughes has shone alongside Étienne Capoue at the base of midfield.
The problem positions are left-wing and centre-forward. But Watford have options and Welbeck could hold the keys.
If fit enough, Welbeck should start on the left instead of Pereyra. Injury has interrupted his Watford career but the Welbeck of England and Manchester United would be a coup. Equally, he could lead the line and would offer more pace than Deeney.
That’s important because all-too-often when Sarr crosses there’s been no-one – or very few players – in the box.
The two examples, against Southampton and Burnley, illustrate that. If Sarr getting crosses in is the plan, players have to commit to getting on the end of them.
Equally, Sarr has to start getting his head up. Somehow missing both Deeney and Doucouré from this position (below) was infuriating.
Andre Gray might have been an alternative. He is a penalty box poacher. However, he was left out of Saturday’s squad after at least 20 guests – including Nathaniel Chalobah and Domingos Quina – attended his birthday. The trio were omitted on health and safety grounds and it’s unclear how long that will remain the case.
That leaves the virtually untried duo of João Pedro and Adalberto Peñaranda. The former came off the bench against Southampton, playing a part in Jan Bednarek putting through his own net. Capable of playing wide or through the middle, his speed offers another dimension. Peñaranda has yet to make his Premier League bow. The Venezuelan scored a beauty against Coventry City in the Carabao Cup before being sent to Eupen on loan.
Pinning survival hopes on either is far from ideal. It’s not Pearson’s fault those are his attacking options – and everyone knows that.