Watford moved off the bottom of the Premier league for the first time since the second game of the season in a hard-fought draw away to high-flying Sheffield United at a wet Bramall Lane.
Chris Wilder’s Blades came into the game in buoyant form, having won three consecutive matches in the league and only conceded once since the start of December.
Sheffield United made only one change to the victory away to Brighton & Hove Albion last week, with John Fleck returning from suspension in place of Luke Freeman. Six of Wilder's starting line-up against Watford had begun every one of United's 19 league matches so far.
In contrast, Ben Foster has been the only consistent presence for a Watford side that had shipped 32 goals and scored only 11 prior to the trip to south Yorkshire. The victory over Manchester United last week was a rare bright light in an otherwise dark and torrid season for the Hornets.
Nigel Pearson was, however, only forced into making one change to last week’s side that dismantled a club that has won the Premier League 13 times. Abdoulaye Doucoure’s suspension saw Nathaniel Chalobah move into the starting line-up.
Sheffield United started the stronger as Scotland international Oil McBurnie had the best of the early opportunities, drawing a spectacular reflex save from Ben Foster, low to his right with only 10 minutes on the block.
McBurnie and Chris Basham had further chances for the Blades but could not find a way passed a resolute Watford defence.
Against the run of play, Watford took the lead after 27 minutes.
Foster made a long clearance from inside his own six yard box up to halfway. Chalobah rose highest to flick the ball into the path of an onrushing Gerard Deulofeu. With pace to burn and only the goalkeeper to beat, Deulofeu made no mistake from 12 yards as he slid the ball passed a helpless Dean Henderson.
It was the first goal conceded by United since Alexander Tettey's opener for Norwich City on 8 December.
The lead didn’t last long. Only eight minutes later, David Coote was pointing to the penalty spot for Sheffield United.
Following a careless touch and an even more lackadaisical challenge on the edge of the Watford penalty box, Will Hughes felled George Baldock as they both ran away from Goal.
Watford had gifted Sheffield United a golden opportunity to equalise, whilst they had looked assured in defence up until then, and Oliver Norwood made no mistake, emphatically sending his penalty into the bottom right corner of Foster’s goal.
From this point onwards, the Blades were in the ascendency as Watford and Foster repelled attack after attack.
Sheffield United amassed nine corners, 16 shots, and 58% possession but were only able to create one further clear-cut chance.
This time, Fleck was miraculously denied by Foster from point blank range in the 65th minute after he was played in by substitute Lys Mousset. Foster, somehow, defying the laws of physics, found a way to divert a ball wide that seemed destined to nestle into his net.
Sheffield United continued to knock on Watford’s door but the Hornets held strong and, if not for a matter of inches, could have stolen a precious three points late on as Deulofeu sent an 18-yard free-kick agonisingly wide.
In the end, Watford left south Yorkshire with a point, but the result and the performance felt far more meaningful given the circumstances.
An unlikely love Story is emerging in Hertfordshire
As Pearson told the media after the game, “If you can’t win, don’t get beaten”.
This was a Watford performance in the image of its manager: defiant, durable, dogged.
Watford have only kept two Premier League clean sheets in 20 away games in 2019, conceding 41 goals; but yesterday, Watford made 27 defensive clearances, seven dispossessions, and 16 blocks. It was prime Pearson.
Nottingham-born Pearson, a defender in his hay-day, had a playing career spanning 17 years. Known as a no-nonsense centre-back, Pearson captained Sheffield Wednesday and Middlesborough to cup and league glory during his time at the clubs.
Pearson’s time in management has been far less straightforward.
In the face of adversity, even mockery and ostracism during his managerial career, Pearson has returned to the Premier League with Watford, having been on the verge of retirement and management oblivion.
It was a surprising approach from the Pozzo network that spiked intrigue in the former Derby County manager, who had been suspended following an argument with owner Mel Morris after only three months in charge. In 2016, just over four months after arriving at Pride Park, Pearson left the club hurt, heartbroken, and with Derby 20th in the league.
Pearson took 12 months out of management, worked for FIFA in coaching and development, before moving to Belgian side OH Leuven.
It looked like Pearson’s time in club management was coming to an end after 18 months in charge of the First division B side – much like Watford’s stay in the Premier League – but after five points in four games, it appears that an unlikely love story is emerging in Hertfordshire.
Etienne Capoue, Christian Kabasele, Craig Cathcart and Adrian Mariappa were all quite literally putting their bodies on the line yesterday as they channelled their inner-Pearson and threw themselves in front of the ball time after time.
Yesterday’s performance was evidence of Watford’s new defensive philosophy of playing for the many, rather than the few.
After the game, Nigel Pearson reflected on his side’s unyielding performance: “For all the possession they had, we kept them at arm’s length and we made it difficult for them. We had to dig our heels in but we go away with something for our efforts.”
”It is a good point for us… I think it important we turn into the new year with some hope we can fight for results, even when we are not at our best.”
Foster is a fine wine
At 36 years young, playing his 425th career appearance, including eight for England, Foster could be forgiven for thinking he is in the twilight of his footballing days, but over 90 minutes, Watford’s cat-like goalkeeper showed that there is life in the old dog yet.
As the clock ticked towards 10 minutes, Jack O’Connell picked up the ball on the left edge of Watford’s box and took two touches before unleashing a fierce albeit skewed strike towards a reactionary McBurnie, who did well to turn the ball towards Foster’s bottom right corner from seven yards.
Foster, moving to his left and towards the centre of his goal, was more than a match for the effort as he leapt low and with an out-stretched right hard, palmed the ball away from goal. He was up quickly only half a second later as David McGoldrick sought a rebound but Watford’s defence were quick to thwart the Sheffield attacker.
Fast forward to the 64th minute, and Foster was again producing cat-like reflexes to deny Fleck from six-yards.
Pearson called the save, “unbelievable” but if there is one thing we have learned in the last couple of seasons, nothing is “unbelievable” when it concerns Foster.
Pearson added: "He's an experienced goalkeeper who has fire in his belly to perform. I can look him in the eyes and know he'll do what he can to deliver.”
For Watford to perform the greatest of escapes and have any chance of avoiding relegation this season, Foster will have to keep that fire burning bright.