A demoralised AFC Bournemouth were embarrassed at home as Watford picked up only their second away win of the season through goals from Abdoulaye Doucoure, Troy Deeney and Roberto Pereyra.
Since beating Manchester United in early November, Eddie Howe's Bournemouth side had picked up just four points prior to the visit of Nigel Pearson’s Watford – the worst run of form in the Premier League. In contrast, only Manchester City and Liverpool (12) had picked up more points than Watford (10) since Pearson took charge of the Hornets.
For the visit of Watford, Bournemouth welcomed back former Hornet Nathan Ake to the starting line-up, as well as Adam Smith, whilst Mark Travers made his first appearance of the season in goal following a minor injury to Aaron Ramsdale.
Following three consecutive red cards and a hamstring injury to Kiko Femenía, Pearson made two changes to the side that beat Wolverhampton Wanderers on New Years day, with Adam Masina and Adrian Mariappa playing either side of Craig Dawson and Craig Cathcart in the Watford defence. Up-front, Watford were unchanged, with Pearson able to select Deeney, Gerard Deulofeu and Ismaïla Sarr, who had scored 83% of Watford’s league goals since the start of November.
The game started at a frantic pace.
Inside the first 10 minutes, Smith, Harry Wilson and Dominic Solanke caused problems for the Watford defence at one end, whilst Sarr and Deeney caused early headaches for the Cherries' back four.
In the 18th minute, quick interlinking play between Etienne Capoue and Doucoure lit up the Vitality Stadium. Deulofeu was set free eight yards out but found the imposing figure of Travers as the ball was deflected wide.
From the resultant corner, Masina rose highest at the back post but could only head inches wide of the Bournemouth goal as Watford pushed hard for the opening goal.
In the 43rd minute, Watford finally took the lead.
Bournemouth, not for the first time this game, overplayed at the back. High pressure from Deulofeu saw Sarr pick up a loose clearance from Travers. The Watford winger responded quickest to fire a cross into Doucoure six yards out. After a superb piece of control from the Watford midfielder, he took one more touch to get the ball out of his feet, and one more to fire the ball into the top right corner of the goal.
It was only what Watford deserved.
The second half started much like the first, fast and frantic with Watford in the ascendency and they nearly had their second goal on 52 minutes.
A deep Deulofeu cross was headed in the path of Sarr by Steve Cook, eight yards out. Taking it on the volley, Sarr lacked conviction, scuffing his strike and it was easily cleared.
The Hornets did extend their lead in the 65th minute as Deeney scored his eighth career goal against Bournemouth after more good work from Sarr.
The Senegalese international skipped passed Cook twice in a matter of seconds before his cross was deflected into the path of an on-rushing Deeney. The Watford captain made no mistake from six yards.
Watford continued to push for a third with the skipper again going close in the 69th minute as Watford had their 12th attempt on the Bournemouth goal, but the Hornets had to wait until added time to put the icing on top of a relentless attacking performance.
Roberto Pereyra, brought on for Sarr late on, played a one-two with the Bournemouth defence before setting-up Andre Gray, another late substitution, six yards out. Gray saw his effort cleared off the line but Pereyra was on hand to emphatically volley the ball home into the top corner as Watford completed the victory in style.
Pearson’s Hornets have now won four in five games, having picked up 13 points from a possible 15.
Bournemouth, on the other hand, are in free-fall, having picked up only 4 points from a possible 33.
It took only three minutes for Sarr to cause panic in the Bournemouth ranks as he found an abundance of space to run into deep in the opposition’s half.
Ryan Fraser had given the ball away and Watford were quick to counter. Within seconds, Watford had sprung Sarr free. Reaching fifth gear in a matter of metres as he entered the box, Sarr took a poor first touch that pulled him wide and, with it, the chance had drifted on by.
It wasn’t his finest display of footballing ability on Sunday, but the alarm bells were ringing for Bournemouth’s defence. Watford were ruthless and Sarr was not here to mess about.
Watford’s young Senegalese winger traumatised Ake early on, but quickly switched sides to torment Smith. An early yellow card for the Cherries defender within 13 minutes left Smith on thin ice and Sarr had thus manufactured an extra yard on his counterpart in which to work.
However, Pearson and Craig Shakespeare were not happy with the Watford winger, vocalising their frustration at Sarr dropping deeper to receive the ball, rather than hanging goal-side on the shoulder of the Bournemouth wingbacks.
Sarr took heed of the advice.
In the 43rd minute, as Travers looked to clear the ball to his left-back, Sarr stepped up on Ake to intercept the goalkeeper’s loose clearance. He took only two touches to find Doucoure and Watford were deservedly 1-0 up in the blink of an eye.
For the second goal, it was again all of Sarr’s making. He found himself one-on-one with a static Cook. Not once, but twice, Sarr skipped passed the helpless defender as he turned the Bournemouth back line inside-out before seeing his cross deflect into the path of Deeney.
Alongside Deeney, who won 33 duels over 90 minutes, 54 touches and created a further four chances – more than any other player on the pitch – Sarr had 49 touches for one official assist, two key passes and an 83% pass accuracy.
And yet, the most pleasing aspect of his performance may, in fact, have been that Sarr still wasn’t content. Having tormented the Cherries for 82 minutes, Pearson substituted a furious Sarr for Pereyra. In doing so, Doucoure had to be instructed to speak to the young Watford winger, but rather than appearing an act of petulance, it signalled the hunger and desire of a young man with bags of potential and fight.
Channelled carefully, the future for Sarr is limitless.
It was only Watford’s second away win of the season and their second clean sheet away from home – their seventh in total for the season. But defensively, Watford are a team transformed. Masina has been pivotal to that change in fortunes.
In the 49th minute, he showed how far he is has come under Pearson.
Facing towards his own goal with the ball at his feet in a crowded box, Solanke breathing down his neck, Masina never panicked. He dropped his left shoulder to fake moving left, brought the ball across his body to the right, and left Solanke in his wake to calmly clear the ball away from danger and up to a Watford striker. It was a small, almost insignificant act, but in the past, we would have seen Masina or a fellow defensive colleague rush to play a long ball to no-one.
Time and time again, Bournemouth attacked Masina down their right, but there was no complacency from the Watford left-back as he thwarted attack after attack.
Over 90 minutes, Masina never lost an aerial dual, made 13 interceptions, four clearances and 17 recoveries.
Masina was majestic, but he was not alone.
Since Pearson took over, Watford have conceded just four goals in seven games, compared to 30 in 15 prior to his appointment, seeing his side move out of the relegation zone for the first time since the opening weekend of the season.
After the game, Pearson – ever the realist – was quick to downplay the significance of the result: “We created a lot of chances, we defended set plays with an incredible desire to keep the ball out of the net, and we needed to. It's a great result for us, but we have to keep our focus from here on in.
"There are so many games left, I think it would be foolish to think that just because we've got out of the bottom three, that the job's done. It's not a season-changing result."
And he is right. Watford have 16 games remaining of the league season and are only one point above Aston Villa in the relegation zone. But on this performance, he and the Watford fans have reason to believe in miracles.
Watford are a club re-born.