Exactly two years since the passing of legendary Watford manager Graham Taylor, Javi Gracia's Hornets triumphed 2-1 at Crystal Palace to continue their positive start to 2019 and lay to rest a recent revival in form for the Eagles.
Tom Cleverley struck the winner for the away side with a sweetly-hit volley into the top corner seven minutes after Craig Cathcart equalised with a looping header to cancel out his first-half own-goal.
The result saw Watford climb to 7th in the Premier League table, where they will remain unless Wolverhampton Wanderers manage to beat title contenders Manchester City by three goals on Monday, while Palace stay in 14th place, four points above the relegation zone.
Tale of two halves
In the opening exchanges, Watford were the brighter of the two sides: a surging run from Gerard Deulofeu saw his effort at goal strike the far post before Roberto Pereyra’s follow-up also hit the upright. Palace were fortunate to remain level with their opponents, however they soon mustered a foothold in the game and controlled the remainder of the first-half.
The Eagles looked particularly threatening in wide areas, with Andros Townsend and Wilfried Zaha cutting in from either flank. Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Patrick van Aanholt were effective with their bombardment of overlapping runs, though a stout Hornets defence did well to survive the onslaught.
Roy Hodgson’s men were also noticeably superior physically, and a three-man midfield of Cheikhou Kouyaté, Luka Milivojevic and James McArthur outnumbered and consequently outplayed Watford’s French duo of Étienne Capoue and Abdoulaye Doucouré.
Palace continued to pile on the pressure and were good value for their 38th-minute opener which had been on the horizon for a fairly long spell in the game. A hectic scramble in the Watford box after a corner saw Doucouré’s attempted clearance deflect off Cathcart, who could only watch in despair as the ball flew into his own net.
The Northern Ireland international went from zero to hero after the break, a perfect embodiment of the entire Watford team who stepped up a number of gears in the second-half.
Similar to Palace’s opener, the away side’s equaliser had been brewing for a considerable period, and after Cathcart looped the ball over the stranded Wayne Hennessey there was a degree of inevitability about Cleverley’s spectacular winner seven minutes later.
Set-piece woes for both sides
In a fairly even contest, it came as no surprise that the majority of the goals came from set-piece scenarios — though each side will be disappointed with the manner in which they conceded.
From a Watford point of view, the inability to clear their lines for Cathcart’s own-goal was ignominious, an event made yet more frustrating by the fact that the one attempted clearance eventually ricocheted into Ben Foster’s goal.
The opener may not have taken the form it eventually did had the Hornets been more equipped in their defence of set-pieces, especially given that it was the Eagles’ second successive corner in as many minutes.
As for Palace, Jose Holebas’ whipped corner to assist Cathcart’s equaliser should have been dealt with better. While it was an impressive finish from the long-standing Watford centre-back, it was a surprise that he was able to connect with the ball in the first place — Hennessey came to collect the high and deep cross but retreated at the last second, while a largely static Eagles defence did little to prevent Cathcart’s late run into the six-yard box.
Whilst Cleverley’s winner didn’t strictly come as a result of a set-piece, Hodgson will have similar disgruntlement about his side’s defending in the buildup to the goal. Pinball in the Palace area presented numerous opportunities to clear their lines — something of a recurring theme from this game — though the ball eventually fell ideally for the former Manchester United and Everton midfielder to fire home.
Revival in away form continues for Hornets
One huge downfall for Watford last season was their points tally away from Vicarage Road — the first half of 2018 saw the Hornets amass just a solitary point on their travels.
However, there has been a significant upturn in their fortunes on the road this term, something which has played considerably into the impressive overall league form which has put the Hornets well on course for their most successful Premier League season to date.
A noticeable difference has been the willingness to attack home teams. Last season’s away performances were a dreary culmination of conservative, uninspiring and frankly lacklustre displays, yet this time around the expansive football played fortnightly in Hertfordshire has been more effectively transferred onto Premier League pitches all over the country.
This is the first time Watford have achieved a league double over Crystal Palace since 2001/02, and there’s good reason to believe it wouldn’t have happened had last season’s away form continued to haunt the Hornets in 2018/19.
Meanwhile, Eagles continue to falter on home turf
It speaks volumes that Cathcart’s own-goal made him the joint-top home scorer at Selhurst Park so far this term — Palace have only scored six goals in south London since the beginning of this campaign.
For all the large spells of pressure they imposed on the Watford box, through intelligent movement and enterprising passing exchanges, the Eagles were astonishingly poor in both the final ball and the final touch to finish.
There have been calls for Palace to invest in a striker after the underwhelming scoring record of current first-choice forwards Jordan Ayew and Christian Benteke, though perhaps Palace could take example from a Hornets side who seem to find goals from all over the pitch.
One thing’s for certain: for home form to improve, the Eagles must discover a more productive strategy in the interest of scoring goals.