Watford saw a lead slip for the third consecutive game as Brighton & Hove Albion gained a hard-fought point in a relegation six-pointer on the south coast.
Story of the match
Following two consecutive last-gasp defeats away to Aston Villa and at home to Everton, Nigel Pearson welcomed back Will Hughes into the starting line-up after recovering from a knee injury at the end of December. The game came too soon for Daryl Janmaat, Ismaila Sarr and Kiko Femenia as Pearson made only one change to the side that lost to the Toffees last week.
For Brighton, winless in five league games, Graham Potter made four changes to the side that drew away to West Ham United last week. Shane Duffy returned to the side after recovering from shin surgery alongside Dan Burn and Ezequiel Schelotto in defence as Martin Montoya, Adam Webster and Bernardo were left out by the Brighton manager. Deadline day signing Tariq Lamptey was also absent from the squad after joining from Chelsea, whilst the hosts were still without Jose Izquierdo (knee) for the relegation six-pointer at a sold-out American Express Stadium.
With both sides sitting precariously in and around the relegation zone, Watford trailed their hosts by just three points and three league places, but it was Brighton who started in the ascendency.
Looking for their first league double over the Hornets in 30 years following a resounding 3-0 victory away at Vicarage Road in the first game of the season, Brighton earned three corners in as many first-half minutes as the Seagulls started swiftly in a 4-4-2 formation.
Watford responded as Roberto Pereyra, sporting bright pink hair, flashed a volley across goal in the fifth minute but the game didn’t truly come to life until the 19th minute as Watford took the lead in emphatic style.
A loose pass by Aaron Mooy on halfway fell into the path of Abdoulaye Doucoure. The Watford midfielder carried the ball 40 yards to the edge of the Brighton box before unleashing a rocket into the top corner of the net. Mathew Ryan, making his 100th appearance in the Brighton goal was helpless as he saw Doucoure’s shot sail passed him for the Frenchman’s third goal in six league games – as many as in his previous 34 appearances in the competition.
The game turned end-to-end for the next 20 minutes as Mooy and Schelotto had efforts for Brighton and Hughes saw a shot deflected wide. Watford also saw a golden chance fall by the wayside in the 36th minute as Pereyra overplayed in the Brighton box before seeing his pass intercepted.
Five minutes later, Brighton fans were up in arms, more out of hope than expectation, as Schelotto went down under pressure from Gerard Deulofeu in the Watford box but referee Kevin Friend waved away the protests and, with it, ended Brighton’s hopes for an equaliser in the first-half.
The second half started much like the first, with Brighton piling pressure on the Watford defence.
The Hornets grew scrappy and desperate, picking up a couple of light yellow cards in the process. However, a Schelotto cross that evaded a lunging Glenn Murray at the back post was the only chance of note for the hosts.
It took until the 57th minute for Watford to register their first chance of the half as Deulofeu dragged wide from the edge of the 18-yard box but Brighton soon continued the onslaught in a half riddled with errors from both sides.
Brighton thought they had taken finally scored in the 78th minute after quick feet from substitute Alireza Jahanbakhsh put through Mooy but he was denied by the feet of Ben Foster from 10 yards.
The Seagulls did have their equaliser only a minute later as Adrian Mariappa put the ball into his own net from six yards after an unthreatening cross by Jahanbakhsh. Watford had shot themselves in the foot again and it was to cost them another vital two points.
Brighton pushed for a winner in the final ten minutes as Watford continued to invite the Seagulls on but Pearson's side held on for a point that should have been three.
Takeaways from the match
A mental game
Coming into this game on the south coast, Watford had already dropped 15 points from winning positions this season with defeats against Everton, Aston Villa and Southampton, and draws in a further three results. The Hornets can now add another two to that tally. In contrast, Watford have only come from behind once, in the enthralling 2-2 draw at home to Arsenal in September.
The Hornets have shown fleeting glimpses of resilience, holding on for victory after red cards against Norwich City, Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers. This side does have a heart; it just struggles to beat.
Building resilience is not just a matter of form and fortune, it’s a matter of science. The use of psychology in modern sport has grown exponentially, from Liverpool and Manchester City to Saracens and Wigan Warriors. Clubs all over the world have worked with psychologists to build mental fortitude in the face of adversity.
In 2018, Hornets captain Troy Deeney spoke candidly about the benefits of working with a psychologist, helping him to brake down mental barriers: “I have seen a psychologist personally for five or six years and it was a process which started in jail as part of me getting an earlier release. That broke down barriers.
“I was third choice and I had gone from being a starter to that position just because I got injured, which was probably my first [serious] injury.
“For the first time I had to go ‘oh s***, you are going to have to prove yourself here.’ Every time I came in I felt I had to do something to prove myself.
“I over tried and got sent off in one game. We had the odd game where I did well but my season was up and down and mentally I was as well. It was tough.”
The similarities to the fortunes of this Watford side are conspicuous.
The likes of Pereyra, Andre Gray, and Deulofeu have frequently displayed a lack of confidence in front of goal, whilst Craig Cathcart, Femenia, Mariappa and Craig Dawson have shown frequent hesitancy on defence.
Again today, Watford were cautious in attack, seeing opportunities dissipate in promising positions. But it was defensive mistakes that cost the Hornets the three points. It might be time for Pearson to seek professional support if Watford are to develop the mental fortitude they need to avoid relegation this season.
Hughes vs Chalobah
Both are traditional English midfielders by trade and have struggled with injuries this season – Hughes with a knee injury, Chalobah with a back problem. Neither have cemented their place in this Watford side and with Tom Cleverley's return to action just over the horizon, time is running out for both to stake their claim.
Hughes has 1163 league minutes to his name this season compared to Chalobah’s 777 and, when playing, both have comfortably played alongside Etienne Capoue and Doucoure in a midfield three seen as experts at breaking up opposition attacks before they get going.
The headache for Pearson is that there is very little to separate them. Both players have one assist apiece for the season, whilst Hughes has one goal to Chalobah’s zero. Hughes is marginally more efficient with the ball, with a pass success rate of 76% to Chalobah’s 74.5% and off the ball they are equally adept at dispossessions and tactical fouls.
Today, Hughes was smart and resourceful, using his body well to shield the ball and protect possession. It wasn’t pretty, but when Brighton were looking to get on top in the second half, it was mightily effective.
However, with Chalobah sitting on the bench, it begs the question whether the former Chelsea man may have contributed more.
In recent weeks, Chalobah has been a stand-out performer for the Hornets, a stalwart in midfield, at times one step ahead of everyone else on the pitch, making decisive last minute tackles and interceptions.
It is perhaps most telling that Watford are unbeaten in the league when Chalobah has been on the pitch.
Hughes had his opportunity today to cement his place in the starting line-up for after the winter break, but after this performance, it’s anyone’s guess who Pearson will prefer against Manchester United.
Doucoure is a man revitalised under Pearson. Prior to his arrival this season, Watford’s attacking midfielder had made 16 appearances and scored only once, playing in a holding midfield role in front of the Watford defence.
Under Pearson, Doucoure has played nine times, scoring three with two assists in a more advanced role behind the Watford striker.
The Frenchman was again on fine form today, contributing not only with a superbly taken goal but with his discipline and defensive unity.
It was this collective unity that Pearson chose to focus on in the post-match conference: “When players make mistakes, they make mistakes. The most important thing is that there’s a collective attitude towards defending.”
In reflecting on his side’s survival hopes, Pearson was quick to reflect on how far his side has come since his arrival: “We’re a lot more encouraged by the situation than we were at the start of December… We are a capable side, we’ve got quality in the ranks.”
But Pearson was under no illusions at the challenge his Watford side face: “It’s not going to be easy, the important thing is that the application is right.”
That application will next be tested in two weeks against Manchester United but whilst today will have felt like another two points lost, Watford will have to find a way to win if they are to avoid relegation this season.