Watford were left rueing missed chances as they were held to a goalless draw at home to Tottenham Hotspur in a game that had everything but a goal.
Story of the match
Watford came into the game with a spring in their step, looking for their fourth consecutive league victory at home and having picked up 13 points under manager Nigel Pearson (W4 D1 L1) - only runaway leaders Liverpool (15) and Manchester City (15) have won more points since his first game in charge.
But Pearson was not without his issues as he named an unchanged starting line-up following the win away to AFC Bournemouth. Kiko Femenia (hamstring) and Daryl Janmaat (knee) were still missing in defence for the visit of Tottenham, however Watford were buoyed by the return of Christian Kabasele from suspension on the bench, alongside new signing Ignacio Pussetto from Udinese.
Tottenham arrived in Hertfordshire under rather different circumstances. Spurs were one of just two sides yet to keep an away clean sheet in the Premier League this season, along with Aston Villa, whilst the visitors had also lost their last two league games - they had not lost three consecutively since November 2012.
Mourinho was still without Harry Kane (hamstring) and Moussa Sissoko (knee), but welcomed back Giovani Lo Celso and Jan Vertongen into the starting line-up following the defeat to Liverpool. The new signing from Benfica, Gedson Fernandes, joined Christian Eriksen on the bench. There was no space in the match day squad for Danny Rose.
The game started as an even affair, with Gerard Deulofeu and Ismaila Sarr shooting wide for Watford, whilst Erik Lamela and Son Heung-min creating early openings for Tottenham.
There was an early handball shout in the first minute as the ball made contact with the arm of Craig Cathcart in the Watford box. Dele Alli had looked to flick the ball goal-wards but referee Michael Oliver and VAR Kevin Friend waved away the protests. His hand was in an unusual position, but who knows what a handball is these days?
In the 19th minute, Watford were seeking their own referee intervention as Sarr was brought down by Japhet Tanganga as the Senegalese winger looked to be through on goal. The Tottenham wing-back was relatively fortunate to escape with a yellow card but Tanganga’s fear was palpable from then on as Sarr moved forward with abandonment thereafter.
In the 31st minute, Sarr again got the better of his defensive counterpart, showing strength and speed to muscle past Tanganga and feed Troy Deeney. Unfortunately for Watford, their captain couldn’t get a strong connection on the ball as it fell to Deulofeu, whose subsequent shot was deflected wide for a corner.
Watford were growing in confidence but it was Tottenham who went closest to opening the scoring in the first-half as Ben Foster had to react quickly to thwart Lucas Moura from eight yards.
There was still time for Deeney and Etienne Capoue to have further chances for Watford but both sides went into the half-time break with the honours even.
The second half started at a rather more frantic pace, with Watford in the ascendency.
Within nine minutes of the restart, Abdoulaye Doucoure, Sarr and Deeney all went close to opening the scoring for the Hornets.
But Tottenham still continued to create chances, with Dele, in particular, furious with himself for heading over a pinpoint cross from Son on 53 minutes.
The game briefly flared up in the 59th minute as Doucoure and Harry Winks came together, requiring a VAR check for violent conduct, but both players received yellow cards for their part in the conflict.
Ten minutes later and Watford thought they finally had their opening as Sarr pulled back a ball from the byline to Deulofeu. Hitting it first time, Deulofeu’s shot found the flailing arm of Vertonghen in the box and Oliver did not hesitate in pointing to the spot.
Up stepped Deeney, often Watford’s Mr Reliable, but a tame penalty to the right of Paulo Gazzaniga saw a golden opportunity for the Hornets fall by the wayside. It was Deeney’s third miss in his last six attempts from the penalty spot.
Rallied on by a raucous home support, Watford were not to be deterred.
Sarr continued to fly forward, ably supported by substitute Roberto Pereyra, on for Nathaniel Chalobah, and Deulofeu. In the 86th minute, a Capoue drive was deflected wide as it looked destined to find the back of the net from the edge of the box, but Tottenham’s defence continued to hold strong.
With time running out for both sides, Tottenham thought they had stolen the victory in added time.
A Serge Aurier cross from the right was poked goal-wards by Lamela. In what seemed like slow motion, the ball trickled over the line, but Pussetto, brought on for Sarr only one minute prior, was quickest to react, clearing the ball with only a millimetre in contact with the goal-line.
It was the finest of margins in a rollercoaster of a game, but ultimately a game of missed opportunities, as both sides will have felt they should have won.
Takeaways from the match
Son vs Mariappa
Adrian Mariappa, a centre-back by trade, found himself up early against Tottenham’s most creative attacking player in Son.
For the first ten minutes, Tottenham sought out Son at every opportunity, drawing Capoue and Chalobah back to support Mariappa in defence.
Still Tottenham tested Watford’s make-shift right back. Son drew in Lamela and Dele, but still they could not find a way through Watford’s defence. Over 90 minutes, 45% of all Tottenham attacks came down Watford’s right.
In the 26th minute, Son thought he had finally got the better of his man as a one-two with Dele looked to have set him free, but Mariappa was one step ahead of his opponent and in the blink of an eye had managed to step across Son and bring the ball away from danger.
It wasn’t the first or the last time Mariappa looked to be beaten, but time after time, he recovered and spoiled Tottenham’s attacks. It wasn’t pretty, but it was mighty effective, and a clean-sheet was the least Watford’s right-back deserved.
Deulofeu shows his defensive qualities
In the 9th minute, Aurier found himself one-on-one with Deulofeu, and his eyes widened. Wing-back against winger, normally there would only be one winner. But Deulofeu is a changed man and no ordinary winger under Pearson.
With tenacity, determination and a degree of patience to choose the right time, Deulofeu had picked Aurier’s pocket deep in the Watford half and come away with the ball.
It seemed insignificant in the grand scheme of things but it was indicative of what has changed under Pearson. Watford defend as a team.
Over 90 minutes, Deulofeu made six tackles, second to only Capoue with seven, whilst making two interceptions. Equally important was that Deulofeu’s new found defensive instincts have not diminished his attacking intent. The wiry spaniard still managed six dribbles, three shots and won the penalty that Deeney could not ultimately convert.
On present evidence, Deulofeu is back to his best.
Often the understudy to Capoue and the counter to Doucoure’s attacking ventures, the former Chelsea midfielder was Watford’s rock here, duly taking centre stage in an imperious holding-midfield performance.
For 79 minutes, Chalobah vindicated previous comparisons to Claude Makelele, even Frank Lampard, as he seemed to operate on a different level to everyone else on the pitch.
The Fulham academy product joined Chelsea at the age of 10. But after six spells out on loan and limited opportunities in the Chelsea first team, the England international was deemed surplus to requirements by Antonio Conte due to the £40m signing of Tiemoue Bakayoko.
Chalobah was sold to the Hornets for just £6million and whilst he has been frustrated since by injuries and used as a back-up to Doucoure, Capoue, Tom Cleverley and Will Hughes at times over the last two years, Chalobah was back to his best today with three vital tackles, one interception, one clearance, including attacking contributions of four crosses and 29 passes.
Of Chalobah’s performance, Pearson waxed lyrical: “He was fabulous again today… I feel pretty lucky with the players I’ve inherited… their personalities, their characters, it’s positive… but he’s very, very important for us, he’s gifted.”
However, as ever, Pearson was measured in his assessment of Chalobah’s individual contribution to the side:
“Maybe we should have won today, but players put in a very honest, very good performance… it was a hard-fought point, a clean-sheet, we created some great chances and also cleared one of the line… I'm still very pleased.”
And rightfully so. Pearson was proud of his side’s performance but disappointed with only a point. It is testament to how far his side have come in such a short period of time.
If Watford can maintain this level of performance, their future in the Premier league will be assured for one more season at least.