Story of the match
After a topsy-turvey introduction to life under new manager, Claudio Ranieri,, Watford welcomed Ralph Husenhüttl’s Southampton to Vicarage Road with the hosts seeking their first home win over the visitors in 14 years.
Following a humbling 5-0 defeat at home to Liverpool two weeks ago, Watford bounced back on Merseyside with five goals of their own away to Everton. The victory lifted the Hornets into 14th with ten points and another win this afternoon would have potentially propelled the hosts into the top-half of the Premier League table and dreaming of safety.
The Saints arrived in Hertfordshire looking to dash those hopes and ignite their own Premier League campaign after just one win so far this season – a 1-0 win at home to Leeds United earlier this month. A win today would have seen Southampton move above Watford onto 11 points.
With the Hornets still looking for their first Premier League clean sheet of the season, and having conceded seven in the previous two matches, Ranieri stuck with his defence as Ben Foster retained his place in goal as Daniel Bachmann and Danny Rose watched on from the bench.
In attack, Ranieri was forced into one change as Emmanuel Dennis missed out due to suspension. Young Brazilian striker Joao Pedro came into the side to make his first Premier League start for the Hornets in a number ten role behind last week’s hat-trick hero Joshua King.
After defeat to Chelsea on penalties in midweek that saw Southampton knocked out of the Caraboa cup, Hasenhütl made four changes to keep his side fresh.
With Armando Broja ruled out due to an ankle injury, captain James Ward-Prowse returned from a three-game suspension alongside Ché Adams, Kyle Waker-Peters and Adam Armstrong as Theo Walcott, Romain Perraud and Ibrahima Diallo moved to the bench.
With the sun shining down on a packed Vicarage Road stadium, it was the visitors who started the fastest as Armstrong fired over from 20 yards before Mohamed Elyounoussi saw his shot on the spin deflected wide from a narrow angle.
It was a Southampton onslaught for the first 20 minutes.
The early pressure eventually told as Adams turned in the box and had time to curl the ball delightfully over a flailing Foster from the edge of the Watford box to send the travelling Saints support delirious.
The goal brought the hosts to life and Watford thought they were level twelve minutes later as Joshua King found Ismaila Sarr in the box. Sarr’s first touch took him wide but he slid the ball passed Alex McCarthy only to see it rebound off the post and onto the backside of a diving Walker-Peters who, somehow, managed to prevent the ball going over the line
Only two minutes later, Southampton responded in kind as Armstrong floated the ball over the Watford defence and found Adams at the back post. Unmarked and unchallenged, Adams headed over from five yards, much to the relief and disbelief from all watching on.
The visitors again went close as the half drew to a close through chances for Armstrong with Watford continuing to give the Saints forwards space but bar the fleeting chance, the hosts could consider themselves fortunate to go into the break only facing a single goal deficit.
Ranieri made two changes at the break with Pedro and Cucho Hernandez replaced by Tom Cleverley and Ken Sema but it didn’t little to deter Southampton’s attack.
In the 51st minute, Watford failed to deal with a bouncing ball in the box as it fell to Armstrong who, twelve yards out, struck the half volley cleanly but saw it sail agonisingly wide of Foster’s right post.
Watford didn’t give up and were roused by the home fans as they sought a way back into the game.
Five minutes later, Juraj Kucka signalled the Hornets intent with a low effort from 25 yards but McCarthy was equal to it as it saved low to his right.
King then went close in the 68th minute but was centimetres from connecting with a Masina cross.
Southampton countered and Armstrong, forever a thorn in the Watford side, was unlucky not to extend the visitors’ lead as he weaved his way through the defence but saw his effort deflected wide with Foster going the wrong way.
The game fizzled out after that until the 88th minute when Watford came alive once more.
First Fletcher drew a full-stretch save from McCarthy as the Watford substitute turned twelve yards out and fire his shot low to McCarthy’s right before Masina then volleyed inches wide with an audacious effort.
It was, however, all too little to late for the Hornets as the succumbed to defeat as Southampton leap-frogged them in the Premier League table.
Takeaways from the match
Giving up the middle-ground
After an hour, Southampton’s dominance may not have been telling in the scoreline but the stats don’t lie.
Southampton had accumulated 456 touches to Watford’s 285 as the visitors had enjoyed 67% of possession and amassed 9 shots. However, it was the heat map that told the main story.
Southampton controlled the midfield and the centre of the pitch. With a slight bias to Watford’s right side where Sarr was failing to track back and support Ngakia, the hosts were forced to play round the Saints midfield and pushed wider and wider, but rarely able to establish themselves in the Southampton half.
Ranieri’s efforts to change things with the introduction of Cleverley and Sema did little to stem the tide as Southampton’s 4-4-2 controlled the ball, the tempo and, therefore, the game.
Defensive woes continue
Ahead of kick-off, Ranieri had promised, tongue in cheek, to pay for a meal in the club canteen if they could keep the visitors scoreless. His wallet never threatened to leave his back pocket.
Having already gone close through Armstrong and Mohamed Elyounoussi, including a free-header for the latter six yards out in the 16th minute, the Southampton forwards were enjoying the freedom of the Watford box.
Adams took full advantage for his goal, receiving the ball with his back to goal before turning unchallenged to curl the ball passed Foster with the second. It was another indication of a familiar problem.
Under Xisco Muñoz as under his predecessors, each Watford manager has had to deal with a feeble and slow defensive line, it inevitable means defenders struggle to get close to the opposition and compensate with a yard to pre-empt the next move. As has been evident all too often this season, Premier League attackers only need an inch to manufacture a chance and it’s often fatal.
With six shots, two key passes and an assist, Armstrong was untouchable. Cathcart and the Watford defence were left chasing his shadow on more than one occasion and whilst it won’t be the first nor the last time an opposition forward gets the better of this tepid backline, Armstrong was creative and dynamic.
On another day it could have been three or four for Southampton and, most worryingly for Ranieri and Watford, they didn’t even have to try that hard. It was all too easy for the visitors in the end.