Watford have the talent to be more adventurous away from Vicarage Road
Watford head to Selhurst Park on Saturday to take on Crystal Palace in a battle of two midtable teams with similar problems. Both are well-organised teams that struggle to score. And in their 1-0 defeat to Spurs on Saturday, Watford did not do much to improve the balance in the goals scored column. Former Spurs legend Osvaldo Ardiles expressed his disappointment at the Hornets' tactics:
Have to say. Watford: What a dissapointment. Orders from above. Defend, defend, defend. Why? Please, have a go. So sad.— osvaldo ardiles (@osvaldooardiles) February 6, 2016
It was a fairly accurate assessment, but the question asked by Ardiles is pretty is straightforward to answer. Tottenham are a very good team, potentially the best in England this year. Watford are not at that level, so they set themselves up to try to frustrate their opponent and hit them with a sucker punch.
In the end, Watford threw virtually no punches at all, and Spurs' relentless pressure yielded the solitary goal that was enough to earn them a deserved three points. But as much as Ardiles didn't enjoy Watford's performance, that doesn't mean their plan was fundamentally wrong.
Hopefully Watford will continue to improve and in future seasons will go to grounds like White Hart Line with greater ambition, but this season has been built on pragmatism, however dull that may be at times.
It's true that no one really enjoys watching their team get everyone behind the ball for the majority of the game. Watching the opposition knock it about in your own half is fairly uninspiring, regardless of how good your team is at defending. But the more immediate problem for Watford is what happens when they play this way and fall behind. It is very difficult to get a grip on a match when you've been on the back foot for most of it. Their attacking players have often been starved of the ball for long periods this season and had to work tirelessly defensively, which is hardly confidence building, and some suffer more than others.
Troy Deeney has been an unexpected revelation as a supporting striker this season, but when his team can't get hold of the ball his presence in the No. 10 role looks more incongruous. While Jose Manuel Jurado has shone in a more central midfield role, Deeney has sometimes struggled of late. It is not a question of effort, but where Jurado can buzz around the pitch looking for short passes and turning quickly to find space, Deeney looks less certain. He presses the opposition but he struggles to find space and time on the ball in the same way.
This is hardly surprising, considering he has spent most of his career shaking off his marker, making runs behind the last man or powering onto crosses. He is an intelligent player, using his strengths to his advantage, which has allowed him to adapt under Quique Sanchez Flores, but it is clear that some of his best qualities are lost when he's pulled further back down the pitch to receive the ball.
When Watford have enjoyed their best form this season, they have been pressing teams higher up the pitch, allowing Deeney to get right up against their defence, winning the ball in dangerous areas and looking to slip Odion Ighalo through on goal. But when Watford play deeper, they simply don't look like scoring, and they have not yet cracked a Plan B that doesn't rely entirely on their productive partnership.
A trip to Crystal Palace is the perfect setting to see if they can find a system away from home that is effective. Palace don't score a lot but they don't concede many either, and will be prepared to counter the threat of Ighalo and Deeney. The pace and ability of the Palace wingers will be the main concern for Watford, who have seen more than enough of Wilfried Zaha enticing full-backs into desperately mistimed lunges.
The Hornets enter this fixture above their hosts in the table, though, which is a remarkable claim to make in mid-February. That alone warrants a bit more confidence and bravery going forward on Saturday. They will need to be more adventurous to get something from the game, otherwise it will likely feature many uneventful minutes, as the earlier fixture at Vicarage Road did until Zaha intervened and won the game.
Michael blogs about Watford for ESPN FC. Follow on Twitter: @Regista_Michael.