Long Reads

Watford’s Tactics Under Nigel Pearson

Since Nigel Pearson became the manager of Watford, the side from Hertfordshire have collected 18 points in 13 Premier League games to move the club out of the bottom three before Premier League football was stopped as a result of Covid-19. Whilst not absolutely everything has worked since the ex-Leicester manager’s appointment, Watford are more dangerous going forward than they were under Quique Sanchez Flores and better organised defensively than they were under Javi Gracia.

The basic set-up

Since Pearson has come into Watford, he has generally gone for different variations of the 4-5-1 formation. In attack, Watford play in a 4-2-3-1 with Abdoulaye Doucoure playing in behind striker Troy Deeney with Gerard Deulofeu and Ismaïla Sarr playing in a more advanced wide midfield role, with both having the ability to cut inside in the box and shoot or stay wide and put crosses in for Deeney or for Doucoure coming late into the box.

In defence, Watford have set up in a more traditional 451 formation but with Doucoure still acting as the most advanced midfielder in pressing higher up to cut out passing lanes for the opposition making it almost a 442 in defence, with Ettiene Capoue and Will Hughes or sometimes, Nathaniel Chalobah, sitting deeper than Deeney in front of the back four, allowing Watford to sit in two banks of four out of possession.

The back four, itself, has been an issue at Watford for a while. Despite Craig Dawson’s arrival in the summer, Watford for large parts of the season have been unable to defend, especially under Javi Gracia, who saw Watford concede eight goals in the first four games of the season, despite trying to play the same way as he did in the 2018/19 season. But due to the fact that, except Christian Kabasele at a push, Watford do not possess a defender that is quick enough to recover so when they do play a high line, Watford concede a lot of goals on the counter attack.

Nigel Pearson has largely tightened Watford up defensively but they still do suffer from the same issues in recovery. Take Watford’s 2-3 home defeat to Everton. At a point, Everton had ten men and Watford were pushing for a vital three points, yet Watford lost the game having been two goals to the good until Yerry Mina’s two late goals in stoppage time of the first half.

Take Theo Walcott’s late goal. Watford had naturally been pressing to win the game as you would against a side with 10 men at home but as soon the explosive Richarlison took the ball, Everton broke forward and Watford were unable to stop them due to the lack of pace in the Watford backline.

Watford were incapable of defending against the pace of Richarlison, Kean and Walcott, an issue they will have to address in the summer.

Watford have two options to improve their defensive record. A, play deeper more often to eliminate the pace issue of the centre backs or B, recruit smartly in the summer as they have done in other positions, to add a centre back who has better positional awareness than Christian Kabasele and quicker than Craig Cathcart.

Capoue vs Doucoure

Despite the issues with the back four, Nigel Pearson has had Watford playing much better than they have done all season with Flores and Gracia and a lot of credit should go to Pearson for bringing out the best in midfielder, Étienne Capoue.

For most non-Watford fans, Capoue goes under the radar, especially in comparison to his midfield partner Abdoulaye Doucouré and there is a common misconception that all of Watford’s off the ball work, revolves around the performances of Doucoure, yet at Watford, Capoue is the Hornets’ most important player.

Capoue is really good at breaking up attacks all across the midfield and giving either Doucoure, Sarr or Deulofeu a quality pass to allow Watford to break on the counter attack. There is no better example of this than Capoue’s, 2.57 inceptions per 90 and 2.78 successful tackles per 90 also. However, normally in a destructive midfield the passing ability is normally considerably worse than their defensive ability yet Capoue’s 4.71 passes into the final third per 90 shows he is pivotal to how Watford play. The plaudits and the big money transfer links may all go to Doucoure, but Capoue is Watford’s most well rounded midfield player, crucial not only in easing the pressure on the back four but also in starting counter attacks.

Capoue stats

Ismaïla Sarr

The player at Watford with the most potential going forward is certainly Ismaïla Sarr. Although Sarr received a new wave of fans and plaudits after his performance in Watford’s 3-0 home win over Liverpool, it has been clear for a while that Sarr is a direct winger with a lot of quality just at Watford he had been either poorly used or not used at all.

Under Flores, he had been used in a front two a lot with Gerard Deulofeu, with the ball being kicked as high as it would go to him and he had to somehow find a way of coping with that and under Javi Gracia he was rarely used at all as he did not fit the system Gracia wanted to play. The Spaniard liked to play a 4222 formation, demanding a lot of work for the wide players hence why Will Hughes and Roberto Pereyra often played out there to be industrious more than to provide any real quality and hence why Gerard Deulofeu was played up front with Troy Deeney. Ismaïla Sarr is without a doubt Watford’s best attacking option, his pace, energy and ability in front of goal is better than all others in the Hornet’s team. But we all knew that? Right?

It should be a surprise to no one that if in a few years time Sarr goes on to become of the best signings in Watford’s stay in the Premier League. He is, of course still a raw talent but he has adapted well to the Premier League in difficult circumstances this season as Watford have had four different managers at some point, all of which played a different system and ultimately Sarr in a different role, demanding different things from him and should he stay at Vicarage Road, he could go on to have a huge impact on the club’s fortunes on the pitch.

Pearson, Flores and Gracia

First of all, it is worth pointing out, that in their own right, all three are or at least have proved to have been good managers, Flores is a well renowned pragmatist on the continent as well as his first spell with the club at Watford, where he guided the club to safety in their first season in the Premier League, Javi Gracia did a fantastic job at Watford in the 2018/19 season and came to the club in a tough situation picking up the pieces from the beleaguered Marco Silva and guided Watford to a FA Cup final and their best points total since promotion to the Premier League, and how quite Nigel Pearson has been overlooked by Premier League owners until Watford took a chance on him, is baffling.

Yet, until Pearson came in, Watford did not even have 10 points on the board, despite the tactical acumen of Gracia and Flores historically. The issue was that neither had been playing to the strengths of the team. Gracia had Watford pressing too high and could not organise Watford defensively this season and Flores coached all attacking impetus from Watford and only won a single game as Watford manager in his second spell at the club.

Under Nigel Pearson, Watford have struck a much better balance, they defend better, collecting five clean sheets, but they also score more too, scoring 18 goals. As well as the tactical tweaks, Watford badly needed some old fashioned motivation to inspire them also. Flores and Gracia were unable to do so despite all of the tactical tweaks, yet Pearson has inspired the players to do better and Watford seem a more united club as a result of Nigel Pearson’s arrival at the club.

Watford 3-0 Liverpool

The stand-out performance of the Pearson era so far is Watford’s 3-0 home win against top of the league Liverpool. Although, at that point Liverpool were dipping slightly from their relentless form that had seen them go unbeaten in the Premier League until their visit to Vicarage Road, Watford were strong defensively and exposed Liverpool’s defensive fragility’s.

Take Watford’s lineup that day: Foster, Femenia, Cathcart, Kabasele, Masina, Capoue, Hughes, Doucoure, Sarr, Deulofeu, Deeney. (451)

As a team playing Liverpool that day, the primary aim was to let Liverpool have as much as the ball as they can, so long as it is in front of Watford’s defence, to also sit deep in a 451 formation with Doucoure often pressing higher to close out the passing lanes into Liverpool’s front three and with the back four sitting narrowly on the edge of the box. Normally, Watford are more offensive than that under Pearson, as they would defend higher up the pitch to win the ball back and so on but Pearson played to limit Liverpool’s attacking capabilities first and foremost to get a feel of the game.

Watford defending deep with Abdoulaye Doucoure pressing higher to almost make it a 442 in defence
In that game, Watford had 29% possession but yet they still tested Liverpool‘s goal with 14 shots, 5 of which were on target so Pearson hardly sent them out to play for a point as they might have done if the game was at Anfield. Watford’s use of an out ball was simple but effective, to get the ball to Ismaïla Sarr and Gerard Deulofeu to expose the strong going forward but weak defensively Trent Alexander Arnold and Andy Robertson.

Liverpool were poor, granted, but Watford did that to them, most of the time when Liverpool play they come across opposition who play risky high lines and can expose them with a long pass or teams who do not carry a threat on the break sufficiently enough to have to worry about, unlike with Deulofeu and Sarr. Watford were balanced, had a good shape and allowed Liverpool to play ‘nothing football’ while exposing their defensive fragility’s from wide areas.

What comes next?

For Watford, should they stay up, their transfer activity will be limited due to the fact that they have some really good players out on loan plus the strength of the core of the current squad. Pervis Estupiñán, Luis Suárez and João Pedro, to name a few will add real quality to their team with Estupinan and Suarez having good seasons in La Liga and Suárez himself in time will offer an upgrade on veteran striker Troy Deeney who offers good leadership but lacks key quality and Danny Welbeck who you will be lucky to see fit consistently.

The defence will need improving, especially if Watford are going to press higher up the pitch. Ben Wilmot has had a good season with Swansea but another one centre back will be needed to see Watford avoid a relegation battle.

Estupiñán will offer a good option a left back and a surefire upgrade on Jose Holebas as at least a backup. Femenia should be good enough to continue as first choice right back and Adam Masina the same at left back.

Watford will need to improve in defensive areas to be sustainable in the Premier League going forward. The last real good season they had defensively was their first under Quique Sanchez Flores and have not had the same rigidity since, not with Mazzarri, Silva or Gracia. Pearson can do so and probably will keep Watford in the Premier League but in order to keep Watford improving he will need returning players to hit the ground running and to be backed sufficiently in the summer window.

There is still a question of whether Nigel Pearson’s contract at Watford will be extended. In the interest of stability, they should but they should do so on the basis that they let him shape the team in his image and simply not ask he performs another save me job.

About the author

Owen Parkes

Owen Parkes, Everton fan and sports journalist. Follow him on twitter @owenparkes123 and check out his blog owenparkesblog.wordpress.com