Questions aplenty as Watford slump to disappointing defeat at Crystal Palace
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Every aspect of the Premier League season forms a rollercoaster ride of emotions, none more so than the relegation battle. Watford's bid to beat the drop took a turn for the worse with the defeat at Crystal Palace on Saturday.

The Hornets had the better of the opening stages at Selhurst Park but failed to capitalise on the early chances they managed to conjure. They were made to pay for their profligacy when Jordan Ayew scored for the hosts in the 28th minute and, against a resolute Palace side chasing three victories on the spin, it was always going to be difficult to overturn the deficit.

Returning from south London empty-handed still sees Watford nestled just above the bottom three pending results elsewhere; the implications of this result stem from the fact that yet more obtainable points, of which there will not be too many more, have been squandered.

It was an encounter which highlighted adequately the deficiencies of this Hornets side; where they will need to improve in the near future if they are to realise their objective and win top-flight football at Vicarage Road for a sixth straight campaign.

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Blowing hot and cold

This — perhaps even more than the dire spell of form in the first half of the season which saw Watford sack Javi Gracia, cycle through the hurried return of Quique Sánchez Flores and ultimately appoint Nigel Pearson — is the reason they still find themselves in a relegation battle.

The only occasion the Hornets have managed consecutive wins this campaign came around the turn of the year when they won three on the bounce, dispatching Aston Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers on home turf before travelling to AFC Bournemouth to do the same.

It would not be unreasonable to expect them to go on another similar run given the momentous result and performance against Liverpool the weekend before this fixture — it truly beggars belief that the squad which emphatically dispatched the champions-elect and that which then proceeded to lose at Palace in fact comprise the same group of players.

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Pearson insists he is not concerned with the general performance of his players, a stance which was not altered by defeat at Selhurst Park: "We had good spells of pressure and didn't make the most of it, but we'll bounce back because our players here are honest and committed."

Nonetheless, the head coach has previously spoken about his frustration towards the inability to establish positive consistency — it could be the missing ingredient from their surge for survival thus far.

Set-pieces

The pressure Watford applied on Palace in the second half is demonstrated well by the corner tally: the visitors had five such situations after the break compared to the two of their opponents.

But it doesn’t take a statistician to work out that the Hornets failed to capitalise on these opportunities. Not one of those corners resulted in an action which threatened the goal of home shot-stopper Vicente Guaita — in fact, the majority even failed to beat the first defender at the near post.

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This has been a recurring theme for Watford, throughout this season and perhaps beyond. It has been worsened by the phasing out of specialist set-piece taker José Holebas, but nevertheless there appears to be some lack of strategy for the players awaiting the delivery to follow.

They have scored just two goals from set-pieces this season, the lowest tally in the league. Improving in this area would be a beneficial way to relieve some strain off the goals of Troy Deeney and Ismaïla Sarr who, for what it's worth, are struggling to produce enough to singlehandedly claw their team away from this relegation dogfight.

The head coach

Lest we forget that it's something of a miracle that Watford are even in with a chance of survival given their predicament when Pearson took charge — they were marooned at the foot of the table with just one win and nine points from 16 games. The players and support were visibly downbeat given the situation.

That run of three wins at the turn of the year is why the Hornets still have something to fight for, and it was due in full to Pearson’s shrewd orchestration of the team as well as a willingness from the squad battle for their new head coach.

It seems both of those aspects have somewhat faded of late.

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Particularly in a recent run of three matches in which eight points were dropped from winning positions in crucial ties against Villa, Everton and Brighton & Hove Albion, Pearson’s tactics and substitutions as well as the bottle of the playing squad all came subject to questioning.

His comments about inconsistency indicate he feels a degree of helplessness with regards to how to resolve the issue. This is a talented Watford squad; it’s also one which periodically chooses either to play as comfortable top-half dwellers or relegation contenders. His exasperations are, in that respect, justified, and understandably heightened by injury to key players such as Sarr and, more lately, Gerard Deulofeu.

Is there nothing that can be done to improve productivity from set-pieces? Well, it’s a problem which none of his predecessors have been able to mend — it represents shortcomings certainly in investment, and possibly also in the inability of the squad to develop in the area.

The severity of Watford’s current situation is down to the players more so than their head coach.

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Survival?

It would be unrealistic to expect any team locked in a relegation battle to fulfil their potential week in, week out. But, excluding that famous victory against Liverpool, this has the feeling of a disappointing slump given the promise of the earlier stages beneath the management of Pearson.

A lot has been fixed, but there are still improvements to be made both individually and collectively. None of this situation is ideal; Pearson and the squad would doubtless have preferred to spend a whole pre-season together perfecting their strategy, but circumstance necessitates that they must discover a way to function effectively from more awkward beginnings.

It remains to be seen whether or not they can live up to the task.

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