Watford ran out 2-1 victors over Crystal Palace on a wet afternoon at Vicarage Road, making it three wins from three for the Hornets as they kick off the new season in more than ideal fashion.
In a game between two similarly matched sides, Watford fought hard to earn all three points despite some doddery periods throughout the game.
So how did head coach Javi Gracia tactically surpass his opponent, Roy Hodgson, on a joyous day for Hornets fans?
Wilfried Zaha has been paramount to Palace’s success in recent years and has now become the club’s leading goalscorer in the Premier League.
As such, it is no surprise that opposition teams view him as the main threat — though dealing with him is another matter entirely, as Watford fans may know better than anyone else.
Zaha’s illusive trickery and often unplayable physical prowess make him a nightmare for defenders across the country. However, overall, the home team nullified the threat he poses and this no doubt played a large part in Watford’s quest for victory.
While he did find the net in the 78th minute — which was truly a nerve-inducing moment for the home support at Vicarage Road — this was his only significant contribution during the game.
The former Manchester United winger was allowed just one shot and was dispossessed six times, more than any other player on the pitch. The fact that Zaha scored his one and only shot proves how clinical he can be, however, the fact that Watford only allowed him one shot shows their defensive solidity and astuteness.
It is also telling that, despite Zaha being deployed as a striker, his moment of glory from the match came from his natural position on the left flank. Perhaps the game would have been shaped differently had the 25-year-old played where he wanted for the full 90.
Coping with Palace’s effective football
Hodgson has instilled a functional brand of football into his Palace side, one that reaps results and has the opposition supporters biting their nails for large portions of games. Going forward, they look a class act and create plenty of goalscoring opportunities.
They did create chances against Watford and could probably have come away from the game with more goals, however, they could have crafted even more had the Hornets’ back line not been as solid and efficient as they were.
The Eagles seemed to enjoy playing balls from deep to feed the pace of Zaha and Christian Benteke in order to drive towards Watford goalkeeper Ben Foster. When this was successful, Foster was on hand to bail his teammates out — yet, thanks to the defence sitting in front of the former West Brom stopper, said approach wasn’t successful too often.
The back four of Daryl Janmaat, Christian Kabasele, Craig Cathcart and Jose Holebas held strong all game long to prevent what could potentially have been an onslaught on the Watford goal.
Kabasele, in particular, was once again a pivotal part of the Hornets’ defensive efforts. The Belgian centre-back made more tackles than anyone in yellow and black and won nine aerial duels — Palace’s strikers Zaha and Benteke managed nine between them. Kabasele also put his body on the line in a number of sensational sliding challenges when Hodgson’s side looked destined to score.
Running from deep
The South London outfit put Watford under considerable pressure during the game, and the Hornets, therefore, had to patiently sit deep, waiting for their moment to pounce. After obtaining possession, they would then drive upfield and look to score at the earliest opportunity and, if the shot wasn’t on, they’d seek control in and around the opponents’ penalty area.
A perfect example of this was for the first goal: Etienne Capoue picked the ball up inside his own half before surging forward, leaving several Palace defenders for dead before slotting the ball through for Roberto Pereyra who eventually notched his third goal of the season.
Gracia has shown that he is capable of setting up in at least two ways — against Brighton, the Hornets controlled the whole game, while against Burnley and Palace they had to employ a more reserved approach but were still capable of finding the victory.
This could be crucial as the season progresses and the Premier League begins to throw varying challenges at Watford, who have been relatively comfortable so far.
Watford’s next game is at home to Tottenham Hotspur next Sunday, where the Hornets’ perfect record will be put up against its biggest test yet.