Watford moved into the automatic promotion places for the first time since November thanks to Adam Masina’s first goal of the season in a resilient victory over Nottingham Forest at Vicarage Road.
Story of the match
Watford bounced back from their away defeat to AFC Bournemouth last weekend with a win at home to Wycombe Wanderers in midweek and welcomed Nottingham Forest to Vicarage Road looking for their sixth win in seven league games.
Xisco Muñoz made just a single change to the starting-line from Wednesday, with João Pedro returning to the side after his late red card seven days ago in place of the injured Tom Cleverley as the Hornets looked to add to their points tally of 41 points garnered at home this season.
Nottingham Forest travelled south down the M1 languishing in mid-table and looking to move clear of the relegation places and spark a late assault on the play-offs.
With just two wins in the last six games, Chris Hughton brought back Ryan Yates and Gaëten Bong into the starting line-up alongside two former Watford loanees, with Glenn Murray and James Garner hoping to dent the promotion hopes of their former employer.
Watford set up early in a 4-1-4-1 formation without the ball and 4-3-3 in attack.
In just the fifth minute, the change in formation from 4-2-3-1 nearly paid immediate dividends as Kiko Femenia exploited space down the right to find Andre Gray in the box. Rising high and meeting the ball well, Gray was frustrated to see his header nestle in the gloves of Brice Samba in the Forest goal.
Whilst seeing little of the ball in the opening exchanges, the visitors would not be intimidated and former Leicester City winger, Anthony Knockaert struck wide only a minute later from 20 yards to signal Forest’s attacking intent.
The Hornets continued to flow forward.
Gray had a brief opening in the 13th minute after being sent through on goal by Sarr but checked back from his run to find Femenia on the right wing. Crossing early, Femenia found Sarr six yards out but the Watford winger could only get the faintest of touches on the ball as Samba’s goal remained unchallenged.
Watford did open the scoring only three minutes later.
Not for the first time today, Sarr turned the Forest defence inside out to fire a low cross across the box from the right wing. Samba did well to tip the ball away from danger but had his head in his hands only moments later as the ball made its way out to Adam Masina on the edge of the box. Taking two touches to compose himself, the Watford wing-back drilled the ball low and through the legs of Samba and into the back of the net for his first Watford goal this season and only his second in 50 appearances for the Hornets.
The hosts continued to pose an attacking threat and ten minutes later went close again through Pedro.
A low Philip Zinckernagel corner picked out an unmarked Pedro 12 yards out. Taking the chance first time, the young Brazilian snatched at the opening and fired over to the relief of Samba and the Forest defence.
In the 38th minute Watford players and staff were up in arms appealing for a penalty.
Femenia and Sarr again linked up well down the right-hand side. Sarr looked to have got ahead of Forest captain, Joe Worrall, who went to ground desperately to prevent the cross. The ball flicked off Worrall’s outstretched leg and onto his arm but Jon Moss could not be swayed as he pointed for a corner, much to the frustration and despair of the hosts.
Watford started the second-half much like they started the first.
In the 51st minute Zinckernagel dissected the Nottingham Forest defence with a delicate through-ball to Pedro on the edge of the box. Pedro hit the ball early but struck his effort straight at Samba from ten yards.
Five minutes later and Watford really should have extended their lead.
Sarr found Femenia in space down the right and the Spanish wing-back fired a threatening cross into the six-yard box towards Gray. Unmarked, the Watford striker couldn’t sort his feet out and could only deflect the ball wide from four yards with the goal gaping.
Ten minutes later and Nottingham Forest had only their fourth shot of the game as Knockaert tried his luck from 25 yards but Daniel Bachmann was unthreatened in the Watford goal as the ball sailed wide of the far post.
Nottingham Forest grew into the half after that with Cafú agonisingly close to equalising as he saw his shot from the edge of the box deflected off a lunging Hughes and inches wide of the post with Bachmann well-beaten.
However Watford’s attacking threat could not be blunted.
In the 77th minute, Sema showed his strength to get beyond the Forest defence but his effort from 12 yards was blocked and made its way out to Sarr. Off-loading to Zinckernagel on the edge of the box, the Danish midfielder shifted the ball from right to left before unleashing a fierce drive just over the bar from 18 yards.
The visitors continued to push for an equaliser and thought they had grabbed a point at the death as Lyle Taylor capitalised on a rebound off Murray to fire the ball passed Bachmann in the 88th minute. However the former Charlton Athletic striker had strayed offside in what was to be the final goal mouth action of the game.
Watford deservedly took the three points with 57% of possession and moved into the automatic promotion places for the first time since early November.
In contrast, Nottingham Forest remain precariously close to the relegation places and winless in three consecutive league games.
Takeaways from the match
If the competition didn’t already know it, today Watford showed they are a true force to be reckoned with.
In form and with Premier League quality throughout the squad, the Hornets have been hard to beat all season, but today they showed a tactical evolution, a structural versatility that has been absent in recent seasons.
Comfortable in 4-4-2, threatening in 4-2-3-1, the Hornets demonstrated their capability to adapt to different systems and transition between 4-1-4-1 in defence and 4-3-3 in attack.
Equally significant was the personnel used and a system is only as good as those that are delivering it.
Without a midfield of Tom Cleverley, Nathaniel Chalobah and Dan Gosling, Muñoz moved Pedro into midfield to create a formidable right-wing of Sarr, Pedro and Femenia with Will Hughes acting as the central and deep-lying play-maker.
With a naturally attacking bias, Muñoz established balance in the side with Sema and Sarr dropping into a central four with Zinckernagel and Pedro without the ball and thus Watford felt rarely challenged in defence.
11 weeks since his appointment as Head Coach of Watford, Muñoz has experienced the highs of victories over Norwich City and Bristol City, and the lows of defeat to Queens Park Rangers and AFC Bournemouth, but today Muñoz showed a coming of age, an understanding of his squad that hadn’t been seen before.
In the nine league wins and three defeats prior to today since taking the helm, Muñoz hadn’t moved too far from his favoured formations and personnel. But through injuries and understanding, the Watford bods expressed confidence in his squad today and creativity in his management by way of balancing the attacking intent and defensive capabilities of his side, to significant effect.
With Hughes as the only recognisable central midfielder in the side, Watford manufactured 12 shots with four on target against none on target for the visitors and just 43% possession.
It wasn’t all plain-sailing for the Hornets today but it was a mature, resilient performance that will fill their hearten their new coach who continues to confound his critics as Watford go from strength to strength.
53 touches, 88% pass accuracy, three key passes, three crosses and faultless in defence, Femenia was exceptional once more.
Femenia has been a stand-out performer all season for the Hornets and again his relationship with Sarr on the pitch was too much for the visitors.
After the game Xisco Muñoz was focussed on progress and ensuring his side continued to improve,
“I know we have worked very hard but we can get better, we can have more control of games but we have next week to work different situations and we are thinking for Cardiff.
I think I have a very good squad and it doesn’t matter who i put in the first 11. Everyone understands what I want.”
When asked about what more can come from this Watford side Muñoz reflected on how much he has already learned in England.
“It’s been 3 months together and its a little time, we need to understand what is the capacity of the team and capacity of the players. We have to control the game better with centre-back and midfield. I’m satisfied but it’s a big step forward and we need to get better.”
With Watford sitting in the automatic promotion places, one might think the Hornets could be at risk of resting on their laurels but with Muñoz at the helm, the players will be under no illusions that this is just the beginning and the sky is the limit under his stewardship.