Watford finally got their 2019/20 Premier League campaign underway with a draw at Newcastle United, but again, fans and players will be left wondering 'what if?' as three points slipped from their grasp.
The away side started strongly with Will Hughes making up for last week’s calamitous miss against West Ham United. With 74 seconds on the clock, Tom Cleverley found himself with time and space to take a shot from 25 yards. The ball fortuitously deflected off two Newcastle players to Hughes in the box who calmly slid the ball in for Watford’s second fastest Premier League goal and his fifth for the club in 51 appearances.
Watford went on to dominate the following 30 minutes but with little else to show for it as Newcastle struggled for possession. In the 41st minute, the tide changed. As a ball was swung into the Watford box, Craig Dawson went up against Isaac Hayden. The latter won the aerial challenge and was able to handle the ball into the path of team-mate Fabian Schär eight yards out, who equalised with aplomb. VAR was not used, and the less said about that, the better.
In the second half Watford and Newcastle were more equal and exchanged blows as the game opened up. Roberto Pereyra drew a diving save from Martin Dúbravka, Isaac Success had a golden opportunity to head the winner, and Watford regularly tested the Newcastle defence. At the other end, Ben Foster was called into action on more than one occasion and Watford will consider themselves lucky to only have conceded one goal as Christian Atsu, Joelinton and Miguel Almirón created chances. However, neither team could find a winner and both will feel like they could have stolen the three points in a frantic affair.
So what can be taken from Watford’s trip to Tyneside?
Team selection: form over talent
Yesterday’s squad selection raised more than a few eyebrows in the press box, as well as the directors' box, as Javi Gracia chose to leave Ismaila Sarr, Gerard Deulofeu, and Danny Welbeck out of the starting eleven. Opposite number Steve Bruce may have thought Christmas had come early. However, Gracia knew better.
First premier league starts of the season were given to Christian Kabasele and Daryl Janmaat, whilst Andre Gray played as the lone striker in a flexible 3-4-2-1 formation. In hindsight, these were to be good additions to the match day line-up, however it also demonstrated that the Watford manager will not be led by talent or ability, but rather form and hard work.
On Wednesday night, Watford showed their class against an average but tenacious Coventry City side. There were standout performances from Janmaat, Success, and Nathaniel Chalobah, all of whom were rewarded with appearances yesterday. Such a selection process will pay dividends in the long-term as the standard of training improves, but will continue to raise concerns about Gracia’s management and team selection until performances and results start to change.
Wing-backs can work in the right formation
Watford’s formation will have been familiar to the eagle-eyed supporters amongst the fanbase as it has been used sparingly, albeit successfully, since Gracia took charge of the side.
Gone was the rigid 4-4-2 and gone was the over-reliance on the frail two-man centre-back partnership. In its place, Gracia utilised a five-man defence without the ball and a four-man midfield when attacking. In other words, Watford transitioned between a 5-4-1 in defence - with Janmaat and Kiko Femenia joining the back three - and a 3-4-3 with Hughes and Pereyra joining Gray when Janmaat and Femenia pushed up into midfield.
For 35 minutes it worked perfectly as Watford controlled the midfield and pressed the Newcastle defence, but as the wing-backs overcommitted and as Watford started to lose the ball in the central third, the back three were exposed and vulnerable to the counter-attack.
For the rest of the match, it was a game of cat and mouse as both sides tried to out-manoeuvre the other without sending too many men forward. It made for a fascinating end-to-end contest and plenty of one-on-one battles, not least Atsu vs Janmaat, where, but for a brief period at the end of the first half and the middle of the second-half, the former Newcastle defender had the upper-hand and will be in contention for another starting place after the international break against Arsenal.
Has Pereyra outgrown Hertfordshire?
Don’t shoot the messenger, but Pereyra wants out.
At 1:30am local time on June 20th of this summer, whilst Troy Deeney and co were sinking soft drinks in the sun somewhere, Pereyra was strolling out at a sold-out and raucous Estadio Mineirao in the Copa America group stages with Lionel Messi. The game didn’t quite go to plan as Pereyra was substituted at half-time in a 1-1 draw with Paraguay, but the Argentine had finally tasted the delights of the top table and it’s easy to see why he would want to move on from Vicarage Road to bigger and better things.
This year has seen Pereyra increase his international pedigree with four appearances for La Albiceleste and another call-up for the upcoming friendlies against Chile and Mexico. However, a summer playing with and alongside Messi, Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria and Paulo Dybala has only left Watford’s winger with delusions of grandeur.
Since arriving in Hertfordshire, Pereyra has made himself a stalwart of the Watford side, and yet, with over 80 league appearances to his name, the Argentinian has only five assists across four seasons, and a cross accuracy of 28%. The stats do not lie.
It would be easy to forgive such wasteful and limited service if Pereyra was at least productive elsewhere, and yet he only has 13 goals to his name with a shooting accuracy of 27%. So if the Argentine isn’t assisting or scoring goals, what is he doing?
Yesterday, he consistently switched sides with the far busier and more productive Hughes. This only exposed Pereyra’s shortcomings further. Hughes was everywhere, a man two steps ahead of his peers on the pitch, tracking back and driving forward. The boos from the Watford faithful on 71 minutes as Hughes was substituted revealed everything about his performance. The disbelief that Pereyra lasted 90 minutes was almost as audible, as was his body language.
Pereyra had his moments: drawing a tidy save from Dúbravka in the closing stages; some fast feet and quick movement off the ball in the middle; and setting Success and Gray into space when appropriate - but he simply does not care for tracking back, or the ‘ugly stuff’.
Scarcely will Pereyra be seen going into a 50/50, let alone a 70/30 challenge. Scarcely will he be seen motivating his teammates or sprinting to redeem an intercepted pass. In summary, scarcely will Pereyra be seen to 'care'.
Watford and their ownership have demonstrated a willingness to sell assets and whilst Pereyra may not be delivering on the pitch, his international stock is certainly rising. Equally, Watford would benefit from a hefty transfer fee and a replacement winger with more physicality and desire - Sarr’s introduction to the Premier League starting line-up must be imminent and the sooner the better.