Watford upset Chelsea to pile pressure on beleaguered Antonio Conte
LONDON -- Three quick thoughts from Watford's 4-1 Premier League victory over Chelsea at Vicarage Road on Monday.
1. Watford pile pressure on beleaguered Conte
This, to put it mildly, was not the night to get Antonio Conte the public statement of support he so craves.
Chelsea picked up at Vicarage Road where they left off against Bournemouth at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday: beaten by capable but unspectacular Premier League opponents in the most limp and hapless fashion possible.
From the opening minutes, the visitors' carelessness in possession condemned them to, in Conte's words, "suffer without the ball." Watford got frequent joy from their high pressing, forcing Thibaut Courtois into rushed clearances and defenders into last-ditch sliding blocks.
In the absence of Andreas Christensen, Conte restored David Luiz to the starting XI and reverted to the back three that won the Premier League title convincingly last season. But while the personnel may have been the same, the performances could not have been more different.
Part of that was down to the midfield; Tiemoue Bakayoko looked lost next to an overworked N'Golo Kante, his confidence shot. He leaked possession at virtually every opportunity, and Watford's rapid attackers caused havoc, Richarlison and Gerard Deulofeu racing toward Courtois.
At the other end, Eden Hazard was hopelessly isolated as a false nine, trying in vain to knit together a toothless attack still deprived of Alvaro Morata due to an unspecified back injury, while Olivier Giroud was not fit enough to start.
Moments after an unmarked Troy Deeney shanked wide Deulofeu's inviting corner and Gary Cahill slid in desperately to block Richarlison's goal-bound shot, Bakayoko got caught in possession by Etienne Capoue and earned a yellow card for fouling the Frenchman. Conte sent Cesc Fabregas for a jog and a stretch.
It was early, but for Conte and Bakayoko, it was already too late. Mike Dean booked the 23-year-old for a second time after he clumsily clattered into Richarlison, and suddenly Chelsea's lethargy had morphed into something far more perilous.
Watford made their advantage count shortly before half-time. Daryl Janmaat's pass sent Deulofeu racing in behind Cahill. The Spaniard beat Courtois to the ball and went down in the penalty area. Dean pointed to the spot and Deeney gave the Belgian no chance.
Conte, assailed by chants of "you're getting sacked in the morning" from the home supporters, responded by belatedly introducing Fabregas, but the Spaniard could do little to turn the tide. Watford continued to look the more dangerous team, though a combination of poor finishing, and Courtois kept the score respectable.
Giroud, who surely hoped he had left nights like this behind at Arsenal, came on for his Chelsea debut on 64 minutes. The score was only 1-0, but the visitors had not mustered a single shot on target.
Then, out of nothing, they found an equaliser. Hazard jinked onto his right foot and curled a brilliant 25-yard shot beyond Orestis Karnezis into the far corner.
But the comeback proved a mirage. Janmaat initiated a slick one-two with Roberto Pereyra and danced through the Chelsea defence to restore Watford's lead, then Deulofeu cut infield and fired in low to settle matters.
Pereyra added insult to injury at the death as Vicarage Road cheered every pass and chanted, "We want more." Conte could only look on and hope that this does not prove a knockout blow.
2. Overexposed Bakayoko is a midfield liability
Back in August, in one of the first of what would become many thinly veiled complaints about Chelsea's transfer policy, Conte revealed that the loss of Nemanja Matic to Manchester United would force him to change his plans for the summer signing of Bakayoko.
"My idea was to give Bakayoko the right time to adapt in this league behind Matic," the Chelsea head coach admitted. "But now after the sale of Matic, we need to try to accelerate this process for Bakayoko after his injury."
Conte, in his own words, thought it best to bring Bakayoko along slowly as an understudy, particularly after a lingering knee injury picked up in the final weeks of Monaco's remarkable domestic and European run in 2016-17 had forced him to sit out all of his new club's preseason preparations.
Circumstances, however, did not afford Conte that luxury. Fabregas' brainless red card on the opening day against Burnley necessitated that Bakayoko be parachuted in to face Tottenham at Wembley, where he moved as little as he could get away with in a dramatic victory.
Players who miss those crucial weeks of summer conditioning often hit a wall, whether it be physical or mental, at some stage.
Bakayoko, also dealing with the adaptation to a new club, a new coach, a demanding new system and a new league, appears to have crashed headlong into both -- and Danny Drinkwater's lingering injuries, coupled with Fabregas' own physical jadedness, have left him vastly overexposed.
From the first minute at Vicarage Road his reactions were a step slow, and his decisions too poor to compensate.
Watford targeted him early and often, and the two yellow cards he received inside half an hour were products of the flaws in his game in recent months; the first for a clumsy tackle after being dispossessed by Capoue, the second (perhaps harshly) for catching Richarlison as he stretched desperately to retrieve a loose touch.
Many supporters have already written off Bakayoko as a waste of the Matic money. That is premature, but it is certainly clear that if there is a Chelsea player in him, it won't surface until next season. That may come too late for Conte.
3. Watford mark Gracia's home debut with upset
Coaches come and go at Vicarage Road, and the supporters have learned not to get too attached. The prematch mural held aloft was of owner Gino Pozzo, while Javi Gracia, taking charge of his first home match, received polite applause.
If he brings more results like this, however, the Spaniard may just buck the trend. Chelsea were admittedly as obliging as top-six opponents can be, but the home side appear to have regained the intensity and purpose they lost after Marco Silva's ill-judged flirtation with Everton.
The January addition of Deulofeu, in particular, appears to have added a new dimension. No longer can opponents key in so readily on Richarlison when there is an equally rapid, skillful threat on the opposite flank. The Barcelona graduate tormented Chelsea throughout and fully deserved his goal.
It's easy to see why Watford attract criticism; the Pozzo model diminishes the importance of coaching and squad stability, two traditional pillars of the English game. But it is an approach that, like it or not, has yielded one of the more sustainable clubs in the Premier League.
Time will tell whether Gracia is the man to lay down roots in the Vicarage Road dugout, but even if he does not, history suggests Watford will find a way.
Liam is ESPN FC's Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.