4/12/2019, Leicester City Stadium. Watford suffers yet another defeat, and the ominous bells of relegation are echoing louder at Vicarage Road. The board had already dismissed two highly-regarded managers, failing to compete with the unprecedented 2018-2019 campaign. These desperate times called for the appointment of a seasoned manager, like Nigel Pearson.
Pearson had accomplished a colossal task in avoiding an embarrassing descent to the second tier with Leicester, in 2015. Having been at the bottom of the table by Christmas, Leicester secured survival with a series of wins in April. Eventually, he departed in summer of 2015 due to irreconcilable differences with the board. Nonetheless, Nigel Pearson is highly acclaimed for his contribution to the fairy tale of 2016.
His first order of business at Vicarage Road was to sort out the defensive organization of the team. The statistics ( for instance, 33 goals conceded vs 29.3 expected goals conceded) had revealed an apparent lack of composure throughout the squad. Additionally, the compactness was negligible with 25-30 meters distance between the lines.
The new strategy involved the introduction of a new pair to the midfield (Hughes and Capoue) in a formation resembling the 4-2-3-1 one. Capoue’s new role places him in front of the centre-backs (centre-halves), with clear instructions to provide additional cover in defensive mode. The Frenchman also protects the crosses of the right-back, a typical feature for the adopted build-up game (Figure 1).
Figure 1 Watford formation under Nigel Pearson
The Nottingham-born manager switched the pressing strategy from the usual high defensive line. The first group of the defence comprises of the likes of Deulofeu, Sarr, Doucoure, Deeney and the utilized right-back. Their instructions are to press predominantly in the middle zone of the pitch to exploit the opposition’s defence on the counter (Figure 2)
Figure 2 First pressing line and counter-attacking moves of Nigel Pearson’s Watford
Another critical aspect in terms of defence is the marking strategy in the opposition’s dead-ball passes (set pieces, corner kicks) around the penalty area. The manager utilizes a combination of man-marking and zonal-marking, and it has proven successful until this day.
Nigel Pearson has overly abandoned the possession game of Javi Garcia. The precarious position in the League table and the players at his disposal necessitated the adoption of a more counter-attacking approach. Long balls from the defenders, quick passes towards the front line and constant movement are the basic principles of the build-up game.
Will Hughes is the prevailing figure of the through balls to the prolific attackers, while Doucoure is the principal recipient of the long balls from the back. The presence of the French midfielder ensures dominance in the air and quick deliveries. Furthermore, he is a constant threat inside the box, exhibiting dexterity in scoring goals.
As mentioned in the above paragraphs, the primary attacking zone of Watford is along the right side of the pitch (Figure 3). Specifically, Watford players create numerical superiority in this particular area of the field with the advancements of the right-back (Femenia or Mariappa), Capoue, and Doucoure. The aim is to exploit the outstanding pace and finishing ability of Ismaila Sarr.
Sarr’s crosses derive goals and assists to the attacking-minded players located inside the box (Deulofeu, Deeney, Pereyra, and Doucoure). Deulofeu is the prime source of opportunities originating from the left side, as the ‘La Masia’ candidate is proficient in disorganizing the most disciplined of defences. Unfortunately, his injury against Liverpool has sidelined him for the rest of the season.
Figure 3 Attacking mode of Nigel Pearson’s Watford
The perks of counter-attacking football include the implementation of rapid transitions from defence to attack. Admittedly, the Hornets under Nigel Pearson have exhibited remarkable progress upon this matter. Unfortunately, there are issues in need of immediate addressing regarding the counter-attacks of the opposition.
Capoue has the appropriate pace to return quickly in the defence, but that is an attribute his midfield pair (Will Hughes) lacks. The utilization of a more athletic figure, like Chalobah, has been implemented lately to stabilize the defence.
What lies ahead?
Securing a Premier League spot for the upcoming campaign is the sole aim in the minds of any person at Vicarage Road. The road may seem perilous as the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal await, but Watford is the sole team claiming Liverpool’s scalp this season.
The facts suggest that the adopted tactical approach can work wonders against attacking-minded squads and be put into disarray against like-minded ones. Nevertheless, there are several twists and turns ahead until the definite verdict.