In a rather dull affair at Vicarage Road, Watford drew 1-1 with Newcastle United thanks to a late header from substitute Abdoulaye Doucouré.
The Hornets enjoyed the majority of the possession, however the away side found the net first through Salomón Rondón. Frustrated by a stout Newcastle defence, Watford left it late to salvage a point with less than 10 minutes remaining on the clock.
Story of the match
Javi Gracia made six changes to his starting 11 for the tie with the Magpies, yet early signs suggested the Hornets weren’t to suffer from any rotational incongruity as they began the stronger of the two sides. Gerard Deulofeu had a good chance early on, though his low effort was saved well by Martin Dubravka.
Watford failed to capitalise on their initial spell of dominance, and paid the price for their wastefulness just short of the half-hour mark. A pinpoint cross from Matt Ritchie met the head of Rondón who fired emphatically past Ben Foster to send Newcastle ahead.
With that goal, the pace of the game was flipped on its head. The Magpies were clearly happy to see out their one-goal advantage and the Hornets were unable to break their way through a solid back line spearheaded by club captain Jamaal Lascelles — the urgency and fluidity of the first 20 minutes now seemed a distant memory for Watford supporters.
The second-half began just as the first had ended. The Hornets continued to lack the creativity to lift themselves back into the game, while the Magpies looked dangerous on the break, exploiting the raw power of Rondón who was a thorn in the Watford back line all afternoon.
Gracia made relatively early substitutions to amend the problems created by a team that consisted of several players who had not started matches for a while. Troy Deeney joined Isaac Success up front as he replaced Will Hughes, while Doucouré was brought on for Domingos Quina whose impact on the game was minimal.
However, the change in fortunes came shortly after Watford’s third sub — Jose Holebas — was made. Deulofeu picked up the ball on the edge of the area and spotted Doucouré’s bombarding run into the box. The Frenchman connected with the cross and headed past Dubravka; a goal which uncannily resembled Newcastle’s opener.
Watford pushed for the winner but ultimately gifted the Magpies a good chance to win the game. Full-back DeAndre Yedlin found himself in acres of space on the end of a counter-attack, but his powerful effort lashed agonisingly wide of the far post.
Both sides had further opportunities to find the winning goal from corner situations, however neither goalkeeper was troubled — the game would end in a score-draw.
Takeaways from the match
Rotation nearly fatal for Watford
The festive period can be hard to cope with as a Premier League manager. Head coach Gracia may have had little choice but to rotate his starting 11 ahead of the visit of Newcastle.
In truth, it was by no means a poor side selected by the Spaniard: Hughes returned from injury by replacing Ken Sema; exciting young prospect Quina was granted a start ahead of Doucouré; and Daryl Janmaat — who was ever-present in Watford’s four-game winning streak at the start of the season — also came back into the fold.
However something about the team seemed off. Cohesion was lacking, creativity scarce, and there was somewhat a leadership void without the presence of stalwarts from this season in Holebas, Doucouré and club captain Deeney.
The match was transformed by the introduction of the three above. Deeney and Holebas made up for poor performances from Success and Adam Masina, while Doucouré grabbed the crucial goal to draw the Hornets level.
Squad depth at Watford is better than ever before — though perhaps there are some members that simply can’t afford to sit out Premier League games.
Rondón impresses from the front
Global football is losing touch with the importance of a traditional number nine, as fine technical ability and pace have become more necessary to keep up with the speed of the game.
However, Rondón’s performance at Watford was the perfect embodiment of one of football’s oldest, most iconic stereotypes.
The Venezuelan international held the ball up well, made intelligent, instinctive runs, and most importantly scored with his best chance in a game where adequate service was limited.
The onus is now on Rondón to produce performances of this ilk on a more regular basis — the powerful striker will be key to Newcastle’s bid for survival this season.
Watford kick off 2019 with a trip to AFC Bournemouth on the south coast.
Meanwhile, Newcastle return to St James’ Park where they will host Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s Manchester United.