Liverpool extended their lead at the top of the Premier League as they beat bottom-of-the-table Watford. However, the hosts were given an almighty fright by a rejuvenated, albeit wasteful, Hornets side.
Nigel Pearson took charge of his first game as Hornets manager but couldn’t escape the injuries that plagued Javi Gracia and Quique Sanchez Flores before him.
In a 4-4-1-1 formation, Pearson was reliant on Adrian Mariappa and Kiko Femenia flanking Craig Cathcart and Christian Kabasele in defence.
Having scored only one goal in four matches prior to the trip to Merseyside, Troy Deeney and Gerard Deulofeu were called upon in attack, with Ismaïla Sarr and Will Hughes providing the attacking threat from midfield.
With the trip to Qatar imminent for the Club World Cup, Liverpool fielded a surprisingly strong side as they sought their first clean sheet at Anfield this season. Mohamed Salah, Sadio Manè, and Virgil Van Dijk all started for the visit of Watford.
Against wisdom, convention and league form, the visitors had the majority and better of the chances in the first-half.
In the fifth minute, decisive interplay between Abdoulaye Doucoure, Etienne Capoue and Sarr saw a diving Deeney inches from putting the visitors ahead as he lunged at a tantalising cross from Watford’s Senegalese winger.
Hughes, Doucoure, and Deulofeu all went close early on as Watford knocked at the door of Liverpool’s defence, however it was the hosts who went ahead against the run of play in the 38th minute.
Watford had won a corner but with Deulofeu failing, not for the first time, to find a teammate in the box, the Reds countered.
It took only 12 seconds for the ball to find Salah, who needed just three touches and three seconds to curl the ball around Ben Foster and into the right-hand side netting. It was cruel on Watford, who had showed so much attacking promise, but the gulf in class up-front was ever more evident.
However, unlike in previous trips to Anfield, Watford did not give up.
Four minutes later and Sarr was again scuffing another golden opportunity for Watford wide from six yards before Capoue eventually fired over in front of the Kop. It was indicative of Watford’s fortunes in front of goal; a matter of style over substance once again for the Hornets.
The second half was much of the same for Pearson’s side as Sarr was denied from eight yards by a resolute Alisson Becker in the Liverpool goal. The 6ft 3inches Brazilian was frequently called into action to deny the Hornets and brilliantly denied Deulofeu one-on-one again only five minutes later.
Watford had further opportunities to equalise through Sarr and Doucoure with time running out. Deulofeu even managed to find the post from an in-swinging corner with ten minutes to go, but no-one in yellow could find that killer instinct that has so far evaded the Hornets this season.
As the clock ticked by, it was Liverpool who eventually took the game by the scruff of the neck.
An armpit offside was enough to prevent Manè extending Liverpool’s lead in the 50th minute, whilst Roberto Firmino was continually thwarted by a tenacious defensive display by the Hornets.
It was left to Salah to eventually put the game to bed in the 90th minute as he capitalised on a mis-hit from Divock Origi from two yards to turn the ball in through Kabasele’s legs.
It was another rare glimpse of attacking class from Salah as Liverpool extended their lead to ten points at the top of the division.
And whilst the difference in the league is now 40 points between Liverpool and Watford, it was a matter of millimetres and composure on the day.
So what can Pearson and Watford take from defeat?
In need of goals, goals, goals
Watford’s attacking woes continued at Anfield. The Hornets can be happy with reducing their hosts to only 16 shots, manufacturing eight of their own, including three corners, and they had the better of the opportunities.
It is well documented that Watford boast the worst attacking record in the league, and the defeat to Liverpool again exhibited the deficiencies in front of goal with a 25% shot accuracy over the 90 minutes.
The Hornets sit joint bottom with Crystal Palace for shots on target (3.2 per game) and are 13th in the league for shots taken (11.6 per game).
Yet Watford continue to create chances and currently sit 12th for most missed chances in the league (18) and 8th for hitting the woodwork (6).
As Pearson explained to the media yesterday, “I have already told the players our destiny is in our own hands and that intensity of performance and decisive counter-attacking and creativity at times will serve us well for the rest of the season, we need to emulate that.”
Even opposite number Jürgen Klopp spoke of his admiration for Watford’s attacking ability: “It wasn’t an off day, it was just a difficult game. December, January; you need to show resilience and we showed it and Watford did as well. We had chances and we scored goals. They had chances and they didn’t score. It is for sure one reason they are in the situation they are in.”
If Watford can start to score goals - and it’s certainly if rather than a when - the Hornets might just have reason to believe they can survive this season.
Watford have not won against a side top of the English footballing structure since 1986 and whilst the wait goes on, the Hornets need wait only 16 more days until the January transfer window.
The necessary changes are self-evident: a striker and a centre-back. But Watford already have someone waiting in the wings, eager for their chance to shine on the Premier League stage: Joao Pedro.
Pedro has already drawn interest from Barcelona and Liverpool for his performances at Fluminense. The 18 year-old Brazilian won the Copa do Brasil Goal of the Tournament and scored six times in his first three matches, including a perfect hat-trick against Atletico Nacional.
Pedro initially agreed to join Watford in October 2018 on a five-year contract, and following VISA approval, will be finally in contention for selection on 1 January 2020 as he looks to emulate former teammate Richarlison’s path to the national team, 12 months after this £13 million move to the Hornets.
Posting on Instagram ahead of his move to the Hornets, Joao Pedro bid a fond farewell to his former club: “From the bottom of my heart, I would like to thank Fluminense football club immensely for having formed me as a man and as a professional athlete. It was in this club that I learned values such as discipline, resilience, friendship, fellowship. Things I will take into my life.”
Such values will be a necessity at Watford as Pedro arrives with the club scrambling for survival.
Stand-out Player: Will Hughes
Seven years ago, Barcelona were reported to have compiled a "detailed dossier" on a 17-year-old midfielder called Will Hughes. There were comparisons with Xavi and Andres Iniesta, and Hughes was soon to become the second-youngest England Under-21 international (behind Theo Walcott) when he came on against Northern Ireland on 13 November 2012.
Since then, the former Repton schoolboy has gained admirers in Nigel Clough, Stuart Pearce and every Watford manager he has come across for his tenacity, his commitment and his quality on the ball.
But Hughes has not been without his troubles. A cruciate ligament injury on the opening day of the 2015/16 season cost him eight months of his career and even longer in loss of confidence. The 24-year old admitted that he became paranoid about the injury for a long period after. However, he slowly overcame the fear and was the top tackler in the Premier League for a substantial part of last season
Yesterday was further evidence of Hughes’ capabilities.
A self-professed Liverpool fan, who counted Steven Gerard as his hero growing up, Hughes had one of his best performances in a Watford shirt yesterday, since joining from Derby County in 2017. The £8 million signing was influential in defence and attack.
His match statistics speak for themselves, 89% passing accuracy, eight out of 10 defensive duals won, nine interceptions, 19 recoveries, two clearances and one blocked shot. Hughes was everywhere and could have bagged himself a goal if not for Alisson and some desperate Liverpool defending.
Speaking to the media after the game, Pearson preferred to focus on the chances created, rather than the opportunities missed: “We created some unbelievable goalscoring situations… we were just unable to convert them. That you are asking me why we didn’t score two or three goals, that’s a good way to measure our performance.”
“Hopefully that was a shift in what we have looked like this season,” he said. “We have got to play with that intensity in every game and if we do that there is a real possibility of turning the corner. But we have to make it happen ourselves.”
For goals to come and victories to happen, Watford will be heavily reliant on the likes of Hughes and, to a larger extent, Pedro. But to be reliant on players so young says more about their chances of survival than anything Pearson can say. The Hornets are already on the precipice of relegation.