A late strike from Jose Holebas cancelled out Manolo Gabbiadini’s first-half opener and earned Watford a point against low-lying Southampton, as all the attention was drawn towards referee Simon Hooper at St Mary’s.
Both sides came into the game in need of a result. The Saints sat in 16th with teams around them, such as Newcastle United and Huddersfield Town, beginning to add to their scant tally of points, while the Hornets were aware that this was their last truly winnable game for the next month or so as a gruelling set of fixtures awaits.
The visitors started the brighter of the two, most notably seeing Gerard Deulofeu squander a chance to score with a tame effort in the opening exchanges. The ability to create but inability to finish consistently is becoming quite the story of Watford’s season so far.
With 20 minutes on the clock, Southampton capitalised on their opponents’ wastefulness. Roberto Pereyra was caught in possession in his own box, with the ball falling straight to Gabbiadini after Danny Ings’ tackle. The Italian prodded home to net his first goal of the season, sending St Mary’s into a state of jubilation which was far from imaginable after the departure of vice-chairman Les Reed during the week.
Mark Hughes and Javi Gracia were both forced into the unusual event of first-half substitutions: Ings was replaced by Charlie Austin while Hornets captain Troy Deeney was brought on for Will Hughes, and the pair of English strikers would go on to play crucial roles in igniting the debate on refereeing which took place later on in the match.
Firstly, Nathaniel Chalobah, making his first Watford start in 14 months, played a clever one-two with Deeney and entered the Southampton penalty area. The former Chelsea midfielder was then fouled by Saints skipper Ryan Bertrand, yet the claims for the Hornets to be granted a spot-kick were ignored by both Hooper and the linesman on the near side.
Six minutes later, Southampton were denied a goal when Austin’s sweet strike past Ben Foster was ruled out on the basis that Maya Yoshida, standing in an offside position, was deemed to have interfered with the play. The validity of that decision is up for discussion, but it later proved to be a game-changing moment.
Watford gained momentum after the disallowed goal and equalised through Holebas with less than ten minutes of regulation time left on the clock. The Hornets pushed for a late winner and hit the bar in the closing stages, but ultimately settled for a point in the rain on the south coast.
Takeaways from the match
Saints threatening but nothing more
Southampton now have the most draws of any team in the Premier League this season, a stat which is fairly representative of how they perform on the pitch. Hughes’ side defend fairly well, press high and are capable of producing intricate passing moves, yet lack innovation in the attacking third which makes them deceivingly easy to contain.
The quality at Hughes’ disposal, on paper, leaves them in a more fortunate position than several other teams in the league. But the Saints need to find a way of yielding the most out of that quality if they are to avoid an impending relegation dogfight.
Capoue a crucial presence for Watford
This was the first league game so far this season in which Étienne Capoue did not feature for the Hornets, having picked up his fifth yellow card of the campaign against Newcastle last weekend, ruling him out of the trip south. The Frenchman was replaced by Chalobah, who has recently recovered from a long-term injury which kept him out of action for over a year.
Perhaps it was just rustiness having spent such a vast period of time away from a football pitch, but Chalobah produced a fraction of the physical and technical output Capoue has offered on a consistent basis in 2018/19. Abdoulaye Doucouré also seemed to suffer in the absence of his compatriot in midfield.
VAR needed in the Premier League?
The endless debate on the necessity for video assistant referees, along with the inquest into the quality of English officials, was perfectly summed up and provoked by the encounter at St Mary’s.
One video replay would have been enough to demonstrate to Hooper that Chalobah was indeed fouled in the area, while another would have helped solve the more complex case of Austin’s disallowed goal.
There is so much scrutiny over this issue because the influence refereeing decisions, right or wrong, have over a game is capable of dictating or distorting the outcome of the match.
Had a penalty been given for the foul on Chalobah, Bertrand would have been dismissed for a second yellow card and the spot-kick would likely have been dispatched home, leaving Watford with a good chance of going on to win the game.
Meanwhile, the decision to discredit Austin’s goal — again, right or wrong — gave the Hornets a clear route back into the encounter which would not have been feasible had the goal stood.
The case for VAR is growing stronger as clubs in England’s top flight seem to come out of each and every game with a question mark over at least one of the many calls a referee has to make during the course of a match.
When questioned on the issue, Austin said, furiously: "Help the officials out, they clearly need it. We play in the Premier League, the best league in the world, the most-watched league in the world, so give them all the help they need."
After the international break, Southampton visit Fulham in an early six-pointer while Watford will host title-contenders Liverpool at Vicarage Road.