Watford were at their attacking best as they put six goals past a helpless and hapless Bristol City to move within two points of Swansea City in third.
Story of the match
Fourth welcomed tenth in the Sky Bet Championship as Bristol City travelled east to Watford and a chilly Vicarage Road with both sides looking to find form after winless runs.
Winless in the previous three league games and seven points adrift of Norwich City in the automatic promotion places prior to kick-off, Xisco Muñoz made three changes to the side that drew away to Coventry City a week ago. Jeremy Ngakia missed out through injury as Andre Gray and Troy Deeney (minor knock) were replaced by Joao Pedro, Will Hughes and Kiko Femenia in the starting line-up.
Dean Holden was forced to ring the changes for Bristol City following defeat to Sheffield United in the FA Cup last weekend and thirteen players unavailable. Winless in four after consecutive defeats, Alfie Mawson and Joe Williams missed out respectively through suspension and injury, whilst Ryley Towler made his Championship debut and Adrian Mariappa returned to the club in which he started his football career and made close to 300 appearances.
However, Mariappa could only watch in horror from the bench as his new employers made the worst possible start inside two minutes.
A delightful through-ball from Nathaniel Chalobah sent Sarr beyond the Bristol City defence and racing into the opposition’s box. With time to pick his pass 8 yards out from goal and on the byline, Sarr’s cross deflected off Taylor Moore and onto Ken Sema on the goal-line for Watford’s opener.
Watford were 2-0 up inside 15 minutes.
This time it was Tom Cleverley in an advanced position who found Sarr after capitalising on a sloppy blind pass from Zak Vyner back towards Daniel Bentley in the Bristol City goal. Cleverley intercepted the pass and found Sarr on the penalty spot who cooly finished past Bentley for the striker’s sixth goal of the season.
Watford went close again in the 29th minute as quick interplay between Adam Masina, Pedro and Sema facilitated an opening for the young Brazilian which was deflected wide for a corner.
Less than a minute later and Bristol City were again cursing their lucky as Watford scored their third.
The corner was deflected out to Hughes 25 yards out. Striking the bouncing ball first time, Hughes hit his effort powerfully towards goal which, with a degree of fortune, deflected over a despairing Bentley into the net.
Watford’s confidence continued to grow as Pedro struck the bar in the 34th minute with a fierce effort from 12 yards but the Hornets didn’t have to wait long for their fourth.
More fast feet and quick passing from Watford saw Femenia move the ball to Sarr and on to Sema as the latter calmly passed the ball into the net from the cut-back ten yards out, leaving the visitors relieved the hear the half-time whistle ten minutes later.
Holden introduced former Hornet, Mariappa and Hungarian international Adam Nagy at half-time to try and stem the tide but Watford were enjoying themselves and their attacking threat could not be blunted.
Hughes went close to his second goal of the game in the 50th minute as his strike from 25 yards fell inches wide of the post with Bentley beaten.
In the 53rd minute Pedro should have put Watford five up after more good attacking play from Sarr found the Brazilian six yards out. However, Bentley was out quickly to close the space and block the effort.
Watford did have their fifth in the 55th minute as Sarr capitalised on a Han-Noah Massengo mis-control to effortlessly pass the ball into the net from the edge of the box with the Bristol City defenders chasing shadows.
Watford continued to dominate possession after that, frequently stringing together passing sequences of 30 to 40 passes with little challenge from the visitors as the hosts dictated the tempo and attacked at will.
Reminiscent of an exhibition match, both sides made full use of their substitutes in a stop-start affair in the closing stages and still Bristol City could mount no meaningful effort on the Watford goal.
Indicative of the visitors lack of threat in front of goal, it took until the 82nd minute for the Robins to have their first and only effort on target as Daniel Bachmann gathered a timid effort from Massengo 10 yards out.
It looked to be the final goalmouth action of the game until Watford finished the game as they had begun: in style.
Breaking forward in numbers, Sarr and substitute, Gray played a penetrating one-two move which set Sarr through on goal for his hat-trick. One-on-one with Bentley, Sarr unselfishly squared to substitute Philip Zinkernagel six yards out, who couldn’t miss as he guided the ball into an empty net.
It was the cherry on top of a classy and formidable performance at Vicarage Road, with the Hornets moving within two points of third in the table and Bristol City dropping to twelfth, seven points off AFC Bournemouth in the final play-off place, winless in five.
Takeaways from the match
The Right Formation
In a 4-3-3 formation, with a midfield three of Hughes, Chalobah and Cleverley - the latter in a more advanced playmaker role, the Hornets forward line of Sarr, Pedro and Sema thrived.
56% possession, a total of eight shots and four goals in the first half doesn’t do the dominance of the Hornets justice.
Watford were penetrating in their passing, energetic in their movement and could have scored five or six in a dominant performance that will have struck fear into their promotion-challengers.
The Hornets took their foot off the pedal in the second half but continued to pose a threat. The only saving grace for the visitors being a resilient performance in goal by Bentley, too often the only Robins' player refusing to lie down.
An Advanced Cleverley
The Watford captain lead from the front today.
For 60 minutes, Cleverley was impervious in midfield. 74 touches for 60 passes at 97% accuracy, including three interceptions and two key passes that resulted in goals.
Cleverley was the lynch-pin in attack, sparking swift counter-attacks and creative through-balls that dissected the Bristol City defence.
If this is what a more advanced Cleverley looks like in a 4-3-3, Muñoz would be a brave man to make any chances to the system or personnel.
The Senegalese winger grabbed a brace but could and should have had a hat-trick of goals in addition to his hat-trick of assists. Ably supported by an energetic midfield three behind him, Sarr was hard-pressed by Tom Cleverley for stand-out performer but the Watford striker excelled in front of goal today and terrorised the young Bristol City defence with his pace and attacking runs.
After the game Xisco was in an optimistic mood,
“Today was perfect. Who was in the first 11, they understood the timing, the press, the transitions. We played with a big difference of options.”
But the Watford head coach was keen to warn against complacency.
“We need to continue… we are working hard most importantly everyday… sometimes it’s one system, sometimes it’s another system… we worked 4-3-3 it was excellent, we need to continue, to prepare.”
If Watford do heed Muñoz’s words this performance could be the beginning of something great under the young Spaniard and gives Watford fans a lot to look forward to. However, with over a quarter of the season remaining, only time will tell if Watford can build on this display, starting with Preston North End on Tuesday.