Watford fans were left dismayed as their hopes of getting the 2019/20 Premier League campaign underway with victory were shattered by an organised, patient and clinical Brighton & Hove Albion.
The away side sealed an emphatic win with ease – the first opening-day victory for the Seagulls since defeating Nottingham Forest in 2015 – thanks to an own goal from Abdoulaye Doucouré and strikes apiece from Florin Andone and Neal Maupay.
Watford went in search of a consolation goal but opportunities were few and far between as Graham Potter left Hertfordshire and his first league game in charge with a clean sheet and three points.
Watford are going to have to learn new tricks
It was the Watford of March to May from last season for large parts of the game. The Hornets lined up in a familiar 4-4-2 formation with Gerard Deulofeu and Will Hughes flanking Éienne Capoue and Doucouré, with Andre Gray and Troy Deeney preferred up front.
The plan was simple: control the tempo, control the game, play the ball into the wide channels with wing-backs overlapping, and get Gray and Deeney into the six-yard box. But it was the familiar defensive frailties that caught the eye.
Fans were hoping that with the introduction of new signing Craig Dawson alongside Craig Cathcart, the Hornets would be more assured at the back. It wasn’t to be. Brighton put five in midfield, as has become common against Watford under Javi Gracia, and Kiko Femenía and José Holebas thus struggled to get forward. Deulofeu and Hughes were left exposed, Gray and Deeney without supply, and the defence overran.
Watford tried to change personnel without altering the system. Roberto Pereyra replaced Deulofeu at half-time to liven the midfield up, but to no avail. Chances were few and far between, Lewis Dunk was an impenetrable rock in the Brighton defence, and with the Seagulls sitting men behind the ball, happy to counter-attack and protect their lead, it was game over when they scored their second in the 65th minute.
Things can only get better
The afternoon started so well. Danny Welbeck and Ismaïla Sarr were introduced to rapturous applause and the club hierarchy succumbed to popular demand to bring back the iconic Z-Cars theme for the walk-out music. But that would be all there was to cheer about for the Watford faithful.
The Hornets were careless in possession, wasteful from dead-ball situations, and frequently caught ball-watching in defence. Fans could have been excused thinking this was another pre-season friendly but Gracia wouldn’t be where he is today if he allowed the ‘first game of the season’ to excuse the performance and attitude of his side.
Speaking at the press conference after the game, Gracia said: “Today there are no excuses. They played better than us and deserved the three points and got the result they deserved.
Gracia accepted that there is a lot more work to do: “I think we can improve collectively but it’s true, the first two goals were coming from two individual actions and we have to improve these actions if we want to improve our results.
“All of us are disappointing today, but I prefer to wait, to trust that we will be able to do better in the second game. To have time to analyse, to work is the only way to improve in the next game. I prefer to focus on that in this moment.”
Revolutions Take Time
2,270 days ago, Watford had just overcome Leicester City in ‘that’ play-off semi-final game and were preparing for Crystal Palace at Wembley Stadium in under a week. The influx of loanees and retention of Troy Deeney following a spell in prison had already caused a stir in the media, and yet no one outside of Watford Football Club were prepared for what they were about to hear at a press conference in the lead up to the Championship Play-off Final.
The then manager, Gianfranco Zola was asked an innocuous question about the aims of the new owners for little old Watford, and Zola, in his composed and sanguine style, replied fittingly.
“They want Watford to become an established team in the Premier League and with time we are going to be. Our ambition is to be a European team. There is a long way to go. Don't forget that we are in the Championship. That is the type of people they are.”
Cue the laughter from all quarters of the footballing world. Watford were vilified for such ambition, mocked for delusions of grandeur, but it was the Pozzos who would laugh last, and loudest.
It may not need to be restated but, for clarity’s sake, Watford have since been promoted to the Premier League, reached an FA Cup final for the first time in 35 years, made signings from the likes of Barcelona, Stade Rennais, Juventus, and Fluminense, and come within sniffing distance of Europe whilst defeating the likes of Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal.
Watford have come a long way since the days of Laurence Bassini's ownership and even that Palace defeat in 2013. The reason this is cited is as a reminder that the club is in safe hands and the future is still very bright for the Hornets. It has taken over 2,000 days to get to this point and if it takes another 2000 days to see Watford in Europe then it will all be worth it in the end, even if fans have to endure more performances like Saturday along the way.