Watford stretched their winless run to 11 as Frank Lampard’s Chelsea took the much-deserved 3 points back to West London. However, Ben Foster nearly single-handedly manufactured an unlikely draw for Watford after heroics at both ends of the pitch.
Story of the match
Under the lights of an expectant Vicarage Road and in front of the watchful gaze of a worldwide audience, Watford got off to the worst possible start.
As the clock ticked passed four minutes, Jorginho found himself just inside the opposition half. With Watford’s back five sitting deep, Jorginho had time and space to thread a curling forty-yard ball through the eye of the defence. Tammy Abraham pounced to loop the ball over a rushing Foster from the edge of the box and Watford found themselves behind in the blink of an eye.
Chelsea continued with a full-pitch press and stifled any semblance of a Watford attack.
It took until the 15th minute for the Hornets to show any attacking promise. Gerard Deulofeu drew a couple of yards of precious space in order to set Daryl Janmaat free. Taking the opportunity first-time, Janmaat crossed from the right side of the Chelsea box. There were muted appeals for a hand-ball, and it ultimately came to nothing, but the move signalled Watford’s refusal to go quietly into the night.
It was, however, to be Chelsea who were sparked back into life.
In the 18th minute, Foster was drawn into two miraculous diving saves in the space of 60 seconds to prevent Abraham one-on-one and a looping Christian Pulisic header from the resulting corner.
Watford’s best chance of the half came in the 39th minute as Nathaniel Chalobah recycled a corner back to Deulofeu on the right side. With space to attack, Deulofeu cut into the box, onto his left foot 15 yards out, and slid the ball through a crowded box but wide of Kepa Arrizabalaga’s right-hand post by less than a foot.
Chelsea came forth again.
In the 42nd minute, Foster was again called upon to perform heroics. Mason Mount, so often the creator in this Chelsea side, curled an effort from 20 yards that looked destined for the top-right corner but Foster, diving to his left, managed to get a hand to it and tip it onto the bar.
The second half started brighter for the Hornets.
In the 47th minute, Deulofeu was at his weaving best to provide for Andre Gray nine yards out. As Gray’s eyes widened centre of goal, he rushed his chance and saw it blocked from point-blank range by Fikayo Tomori.
Watford’s bright start to the half soon turned gloomy.
Willian was allowed to carry the ball 20 yards unopposed towards the Watford box before setting Abraham free on the right. With time to pick his pass, Abraham found Pulisic three yards out, centre of goal, to make it 2-0 to Chelsea.
Three minutes later, it was nearly three. Pulisic again found himself free on the left side of the Watford box but was denied by Foster’s out-stretched right foot as the American sought his second of the game and fifth of the season.
Chelsea had further chances to take the game away from Watford with Mateo Kovacic, Abraham and Mount going close.
For the next twenty minutes, the game fell into the rhythm of a testimonial as Chelsea retained possession with ease.
In the 74th minute, Watford fans began to turn on manager Quique Sánchez Flores as Janmaat was replaced like-for-like with Kiko Femenia.
A significant proportion of the Rookery Stand soon broke into a chant of “you don’t know what you’re doing” as Isaac Success, Watford’s only other attacking option, was left shivering on the bench.
Flores later told the press that this was a “normal” response, but he was forced into the change.
“Daryl (Janmaat) wasn’t deep enough and Kiko (Femenia) was fresher and naturally (played) deeper”
Either the change or the crowd response served to galvanise Flores’ side as three minutes later Watford had a goal back.
Deulofeu hurried the Chelsea defence in their own box, picking up a loose ball on the byline as Jorginho, so calm and composed all game, stuck out a wayward leg. Deulofeu went down, easily it has to be said, but the referee, Anthony Taylor, wasn’t to be swayed.
Cue the entrance of VAR stage-right.
Mike Dean, a few miles down the road in Stockley Park, was obliged to check for contact on Deulofeu. He could be swayed and so Watford had an unlikely entry back into the game.
Deulofeu, from the penalty spot, made no mistake, sending Arrizabalaga the wrong way and the ball settling into the bottom left corner of the Chelsea goal.
It was to be too little, too late for Watford but they continued to press and were buoyed by an additional five minutes of time at the end of the 90.
With the last play of the game, Watford thought they had stolen an equaliser in the most extraordinary of fashions.
Following a Mount foul on a marauding Abdoulaye Doucoure, Deulofeu swung in a free-kick 40 yards out into the Chelsea box. Doucoure met the ball on the edge of the box and flicked it onto a diving Foster amidst the melee in the centre of the box. Watford’s goalkeeper got his head to the ball and it looked to be destined for the bottom right corner of Arrizabalaga’s net but Chelsea’s keeper, a bystander for much of the game, leapt low and denied Foster and Watford a memorable draw.
It wasn’t to be and Watford’s winless run stretched to 11.
Takeaways from the match
Doucoure is the pivot to Watford’s see-saw
Doucoure has had a mini redemption of late after a slow start to the season. With the appointment of Flores, the frenchman has found himself in a more attacking role and has become the pivot of Watford’s forward line.
Going into the game, Doucoure had an average of 72 touches per game, 75 recoveries and a passing accuracy of 83%. His productivity and efficiency was ever more evident here as he showed why he warranted a price tag greater than the £30-40 million offered by various clubs in the summer.
Doucoure was the archetypal middle-man between defence and attack, Janmaat and Deulofeu, as he increased his touches for the season to 790, 16th highest in the league, including 632 passes, 13th highest in the league.
In a compact midfield, often surrounded by three dynamic Chelsea harriers, Doucoure consistently found holes to pick out a vibrant Deulofeu. It is to his testament that in a game which his side had only 33%, Doucoure still managed a passing accuracy of 86% with 70 touches, 2 shots and 2 key passes. The Frenchman also managed to single-handedly manufacture the free-kick that nearly saw Watford grab an equaliser at the death.
Unlike his counterparts, as Watford went 2-0 down, Doucoure also never shied away from the challenge at hand. Chelsea were dominant for the vast majority of the 90 minutes but he continued to twist and turn, fighting for every ball and going after every 50/50, and he was the pivot to Watford’s see-saw and the beating heart of their attack.
Chelsea exploited the space between midfield and defence
So often a source of pride for Flores, the space between midfield and defence, often occupied by two of Etienne Capoue, Doucoure, Chalobah or Will Hughes, was stretched to its max by a dynamic Chelsea attacking line.
Watford’s full-pitch press was exploited to perfection by Lampard as his Chelsea side’s style of playing out from the back proved to be Watford’s kryptonite.
With a more attacking line-up, utilising Gray, Deulofeu and Roberto Pereyra, Doucoure was required to sit deeper, alongside Chalobah. Or so he was expected to.
Watford looked more creative in attack, with the aforementioned triumvirate of Janmaat, Doucoure and Deulofeu linking up well. However, it also served to unbalance Watford’s defensive integrity. Where Doucoure pushed forward, space was left in behind and an isolated Chalobah could only watch at times as Chelsea played around him.
If it wasn’t for an inspired Ben Foster, Chelsea would and should have grabbed four or five more goals as the Blues accumulated 16 shots, with 10 on target.
Watford’s first-choice goalkeeper showed that there is life in the old dog yet as he performed heroics at both ends of the pitch in a game that should have been well out of sight for Watford before the 20th minute.
In his 130th appearance for the club, he made match-saving saves from Abraham, Mount, Kovacic, and Pulisic.
After an inauspicious start to the game, being lobbed by a classy Abraham, Foster showed his resilience as he weathered attack after attack from Chelsea’s formidable attack. An attack that had already scored 16 goals away from home this season, the highest in the league, and four consecutive away wins, in which they have scored three or more in every game. It was purely down to Foster that Watford didn’t also fall foul to Chelsea’s free-flowing, goal-scoring escapades.
After the game, Flores paid homage to his goalkeeper but showed the first signs of fragility and concern about the task at hand for his Watford side.
“We need to build. We need positive energy… to play football for the whole 90 minutes… but the players are deflated.
“The first goal was easy, the second clinical.”
There was almost a sense of jealousy espoused from Flores as he reflected on Chelsea’s performance, but if he is to turn Watford’s season around, he will have to accept the cards he has been dealt and harness some of Chelsea’s creativity and confidence.
With Norwich City, Burnley and Southampton to play in the next month, time will tell if Flores folds or raises his hand.