A resolute rearguard display wasn’t enough for Watford as AFC Bournemouth left it late to snatch a draw at the death.
Story of the match
After an entertaining win over Blackburn Rovers on Wednesday night, the Hornets welcomed AFC Bournemouth to Hertfordshire for a top-of-table clash.
With an eye towards a gruelling schedule through to January, Vladamir Ivić chose to switch up his wing-backs - two of three changes to the side that started less than 72 hours ago. William Troost-Ekong and Jeremy Ngakia came in to the side, replacing Kiko Femenia and Ben Wilmot. Joao Pedro was also rested from the starting line-up, with Stipe Perica making his first league debut for the hosts.
Bournemouth arrived at Vicarage Road unbeaten so far this season, having won three and drawn three of the previous six games.
Following a 1-1 draw away to Cardiff City in midweek, Jason Tindall welcomed back forward Joshua King for his first start of the season, whilst Philip Billing, Steve Cook and Lloyd Kelly all returned to the starting line-up.
Between familiar foes, having been promoted to and relegated from the Premier League together in recent years, the opening exchanges were anything but friendly.
The game had its first talking point after just two minutes, when Ismaïla Sarr was scythed down by Kelly midway in the Watford half. Kelly escaped with a yellow card as the forward lay flat out on the turf, holding his knee. The replays showed that the defender may have been lucky to not see red as his studs were shown to scrape down Sarr’s leg.
The Watford sidelines were furious but they weren’t complaining for long.
With 11 minutes on the clock, Craig Cathcart floated a cross-field ball out to Sarr on the right. Bringing the ball down into his stride with the first touch, and picking out Perica at the back-post with his second, the Croatian striker made no mistake to slide the ball in from five yards.
Whilst chances were few and far between for both sides after that, the tackles continued to fly in, with James Garner dishing out as good as he got in midfield, and Sarr seeing his fair share of contact from the Cherries’ defence.
The visitors’ first sight on goal came on the half hour mark after smart work from Lewis Cook in midfield. Seeing Watford out of position, Cook took a quick free-kick 35 yards out, finding Arnaut Danjuna on the edge of the Watford box. Danjuma laid it off to substitute Dominic Solanke. Checking back on to his right foot just inside the box and under little pressure, Solanke took the chance early but struck it straight at a relieved Ben Foster.
In the 38th minute, Bournemouth had another opportunity to equalise after Troost-Ekong clipped the heels of Danjuma on the edge of the Watford box. Fortunately for the Hornets, the subsequent free-kick was fired straight into the wall.
On the stroke of half-time the Cherries had the final chance of the half as Diego Rico created a wonderful opening for Solanke, finding him with an inch-perfect cross, 12 yards out. Solanke, unmarked, mistimed the head and a grateful Foster rushed off his line to pluck the ball out of the air.
In an effort to change the momentum of the game, Etienne Capoue was brought on by the Hornets for Garner at half-time and the Frenchman had an immediate impact.
In the 50th minute, Capoue picked out an early run from Sarr with a delicate ball over the Bournemouth defence. With time and space, Sarr set himself but in doing so, enabled Asmir Begović to reduce the angle and make a point-blank save from eight yards.
Three minutes later, the visitors were back on the attack.
Solanke picked up the ball on the edge of the Watford box but with his back to goal. Seeing King in a better position, Solanke laid the ball off to his attacking counterpart, but King snatched at the chance and fired over from a promising position.
In the 61st minute, the Cherries continued to struggle to breakdown an organised Watford defence when Solanke lost his patience and nearly came up with a spectacular goal. With few options available, the Bournemouth striker tried his luck from 25 yards and drew a diving effort from Foster at full-stretch, who tipped the ball wide for a corner.
With the skies opening, Bournemouth continued to knock at the door but had to wait until the fifth minute of seven added minutes at the end of the second half for their next chance.
Watford failed to clear a Bournemouth corner which fell to Kelly on the edge of the box. Running on to the ball, Kelly sliced at it but did enough to direct it towards goal. Four yards out and capitalising on a deep line from Nathaniel Chalobah and Cathcart, Chris Mepham was in the right place at the right time and couldn’t miss as the Cherries performed a late snatch and grab for their third consecutive draw.
Takeaways from the match
The counter-press Revolution
In the 57th minute, Perica picked up a loose ball on the edge of the Watford half. Bournemouth had been on the attack and with both sides playing a high defensive line - there were often fewer than 20 yards between attack and defence - the hosts looked to spring a swift counter-attack.
Sarr immediately set about getting beyond the Cherries defence and one through-ball from Perica would have been enough to see Sarr through on goal. Unfortunately for the Hornets, the Croatian’s pass was wayward and the half-chance went begging.
Made popular by Hansi Flick’s Bayern Munich and Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, Ivić has tried to similarly build a team that is as comfortable at attacking when they’re defending and vice versa.
The 3-5-2 formation for the Hornets empowers the wing-backs to be the focal point of transition between attack and defence but certainly suits some players more than others.
On Wednesday night, Femenia and Ken Sema thrived in the role, whilst today Ngakia struggled to get forward and support the midfield.
Nevertheless, Watford are a young side with huge capacity to develop and already boast the second best defence in the league. Whilst goals seem hard to come by so far, in a league like the Sky Bet Championship defence might just be the best form of attack.
Over the coming 70 days, Watford will play a further 17 times, averaging a game every 4 days.
Under normal circumstances that would be a tall order for any squad, but in the midst of a pandemic that has already stolen pre-season, fans, players and coaching staff from clubs it could prove too much for most squads and clubs.
What it will mean, as it always has in football, is that the richest clubs with the deepest pockets and squads, will prosper.
And whilst both Watford and Bournemouth are well placed for the challenges ahead, the pandemic forecast reinforces the need for a fast start as a club is only one infection away from a squad outbreak and sliding down the table.
As such, we may have learned more from who was not playing for the hosts than who actually played on the pitch.
As the starting line-up strolled out to "Z-Cars", Troy Deeney, Will Hughes, Femenia, Adam Masina, and Andre Gray all found their seats in the stands, Capoue also sat down on the bench.
During the game, Ivić was able to bring on Joao Pedro, Domingos Quina and Capoue, having already used 25 players this season.
Whilst performances on the pitch may not be perfect, Watford fans certainly have a lot to look forward to.
The Watford captain didn’t do anything special with the ball today but took on the enforcer role with pride and was highly effective.
In a physical game where 32 fouls were shared between the sides and Watford saw less than 39% possession, the Hornets showed a resilience and aggression, rarely seen this season.
Garner, Sarr and Cleverley were all on the receiving end from tough tackling and the latter two, particularly, stood up to the challenge.
Cleverley made 22 passes for 81% pass accuracy, but his defensive performance and positioning enabled Watford to quickly turn defence into attack, spraying the ball out to the wings and giving Watford control in midfield.
After the game, Ivić expressed his delight at his side’s defensive display:
“We were very good in our defensive movement… in the last minute we fall ball to protect the 1-0 but all my players gave their maximum and it was one moment where we lost the players… but to be realistic, we played a very good team with quality players.”
Ivić also looked ahead to the congested fixture list and explained how reliant he is and will be on the medical team in the weeks to come.
With only 16 fit first team players, Ivić is having to manage his squad carefully and depending on how successfully his side navigates the coming months will determine whether Watford can sustain a promotion push.