West Ham vs Watford Tactical Preview 17/07/2020
The game on Friday night is unquestionably the biggest of the season so far. If we don’t get a result, it’s not the end of the world but a loss massively ramps up the pressure on the final day fixture away at Villa Park. After 35 games, both West Ham and Watford have been plugging along just under a point per game pace all season long (although we have a better goal difference: -15 vs -21) so on paper it should be an evenly matched encounter.
For the Hornets, this match represents their last realistic chance at points this season as their remaining fixtures are against Manchester City and Arsenal. If either team can pull off a win, it’ll lift them out of the mire, while a defeat will leave the losers sweating.
A quick look at their average position maps over the last 4 games gives us a rough idea of the shape Nigel Pearson, Watford’s 3rd manager of the season, has implemented since he’s been at Vicarage Road:
Although on paper their formation gets described as a 4–2–3–1, we can see that’s not quite accurate. The midfield triangle of Capoue/Doucouré/Hughes is rotated, with Capoue acting as a single deep pivot, Doucouré playing close to the striker like a typical #10 and Hughes playing equally high but pushed out the right (against Chelsea, Chalobah played the Hughes role and Hughes played on the left side of the front 3).
I’m not quite sure why the right-sided CB generally drops deeper, regardless of whether it’s Kabasele or Cathcart. It could be an attempt to cover for Femenía’s defensive shortcomings (more on that later) but that wouldn’t necessarily be caught in the CBs interactions with the ball. Ben Foster takes 90%+ of his goal kicks long, so it’s not from those situations, although it may be that RCB dropping off to pick the ball up from Foster during open play possession, perhaps to hide Craig Dawson’s limitations on the ball. Something to keep an eye on.
Deeney’s the central focal point of the attack and Watford’s tendency to play long into him is reflected in the cluster of players getting their touches of the ball in close proximity to their captain, playing off of knockdowns, layoffs, and flick-ons. With the forward on the left side (Welbeck recently) playing narrow and Ismaila Sarr playing higher and wider as the main outlet on the right, Watford have a (theoretical) balance and variety in shape going forward.
I say “theoretical” because that’s not really translated into attacking potency; Watford have created barely anything from open play since the restart. The xG totals from their fixtures tell a story:
Leicester: 0.9 vs 0.8
Burnley: 0.7 vs 1.2
Southampton: 0.5 vs 1.3
Chelsea: 0.5 vs 2.6
Norwich: 0.7 vs 1.3
Newcastle: 3.2 vs 1.5 (2 pens)
Losing Deulofeu to a serious knee injury was a massive blow for Watford and has robbed them of a lot of their attacking impetus, leaving Sarr as the only available player in their squad who averages 2 shots per 90. It’s not like he’s just launching missiles from miles out either — his non-pen xG per shot of 0.14 is healthy (same as Marcus Rashford, Christian Pulisic, Bernardo Silva, Diogo Jota , Mo Salah) and there are very few players who take 2+ shots per game/ have played a decent number of minutes who are taking higher quality shots. (Mané and Sterling on the only wide players really). And he’s only 21. He’s the danger man.
It’s not really surprising then that a lot of Watford’s attacks are focused down their right hand side:
With Deulofeu out of the team, almost all of their passes into the penalty area have come from those players who gravitate towards the right side of the pitch — Doucouré/Sarr/Femenía/ Hughes.
This passmap from Between The Posts illustrates how this looked against Newcastle (thickness of the line between players represents the number of passes between those two players):
Femenía played more passes than any other Watford player and the most frequent recipient of those passes was Sarr. You get lots of passages of play like this one between winger and RB:
The battle down that side will be an important one as Ogbonna/Cresswell/Rice/whoever is playing on the left of midfield are going to have to cut off that supply line.
Sarr is a bit of a throwback player. If we look at his touch maps over the last few games, it’s striking how wide he plays:
He occasionally pops up inside, but generally speaking he’s a typical, chalk-on-your-boots right winger. I know I’ve been ragging on Cresswell a lot lately, but I feel like he’s going to have a rough time. A vital part of Sarr’s skillset is pinning himself against his marker and then using his agility and balance to quickly turn away from them, either to exploit the space in behind or to win a foul:
(He also did this to win the free-kick for Watford’s equaliser against Norwich, but I can’t find the clip). It’s something that we need to be wary of. Standing off him, letting him get the ball to feet, and then surrounding him with pressure is a smarter way of managing Sarr rather than trying to step in front to win the ball back.
A quick note on Troy Deeney, who has struggled to get involved in recent matches, particularly in the final third:
Of course, interacting with the ball isn’t the only way to exert influence over a match and his strength and movement are important for opening up space for Welbeck and Sarr to attack. But Deeney has been relatively quiet aside from taking pens. He tends to drift out to their left to contest headers, which is obviously a strong area for us with Souček stationed on the right of our central midfield. Could be a good battle if Deeney doesn’t go seeking the ball elsewhere.
The Capoue/Doucouré axis has been key to Watford’s play over the last few seasons and this iteration has been no different. Pearson’s main innovation has been to move Doucouré forward to play as a 10 (for reasons we’ll get onto shortly), but despite playing higher up the pitch, he remains integral to how Watford move the ball forward; Capoue and Doucouré have 129 and 100 passes into final 3rd respectively, whereas the next best are Masina, Hughes, Femenía on 50ish each.
Capoue’s role is an interesting one. His main job is to sit in front of the defence, mop up loose balls and redistribute it to keep his team ticking over. He’s a smooth passer and although he’s not the most mobile player in the world, he helps his team maintain attacking pressure by switching the ball from side to side quickly as well as releasing through balls when they’re on:
Out of Possession
Capoue has a lot of responsibility in this side and he gets through a lot of defensive work, featuring in the league’s top 10 for both tackles won and interceptions:
The reason for his high level of activity in these metrics is because he acts as the second line of defence, having to put out fires when the first line is breached. A natural consequence of trying to win the ball in the opposition 3rd is opposition defenders clearing the ball long and Capoue, along with Dawson, do a good job of winning those clearances in the air:
Pearson’s decision to push Doucouré further forward was largely to facilitate a change to a much more aggressive pressing style higher up the pitch (as a squad, Watford are 8th for Pressures in the attacking 3rd and 3rd place for Pressures in the middle 3rd (an uneven number of games has been played so that’s subject to change). They’d probably be even higher, but Pearson’s only been there since December and Quique Sánchez Flores played a far more passive defensive game in his 10 matches in charge). Watford were one of the few sides to use that kind of intense closing down of defenders in the early post-lockdown matches, highlighting their commitment to that approach.
You can get a flavour of the defensive style when you look at StatsBomb’s Pressures metric on fbref.com, where Doucouré sits in 2nd among Premier League players:
… and also at the number of fouls conceded, where the Hornets have 3 players in the top 10:
I’d wager that a lot of Capoue’s fouls would be categorised as “tactical” fouls, where’s he’s trying to snuff out opposition counter attacks that have bypassed the press of his team’s front 4, and Doucouré/Hughes’ fouls are going to be higher up the pitch.
If we break down where Watford are pressing and tackling by region, we can get a rough proxy for the different defensive duties these players are carrying out:
Doucouré does a gargantuan amount of pressing everywhere, but it’s generally weighted toward the middle and attacking 3rd, whereas Capoue is inactive in the final 3rd and covers the other two more than any other Watford player, except for Hughes whose numbers here are all the more impressive when you factor in minutes played.
It’s a similar story with tackling: Hughes and Doucouré doing the work in the front two 3rds, Capoue gobbling up their leftovers. Shout out to Hughes, who is 9th in the league for attempted tackles in the attacking 3rd, only 3 off top spot.
Will Hughes is a dream of a player: positionally versatile, tactically intelligent, controls and passes the ball well, tenacious presser, clean tackling technique. I’m so glad he’s seemingly put his injury problems behind him. He’d fit in almost perfectly at Liverpool if they’re in the market to replace Adam Lallana and Klopp decides to incorporate some of his more aggressive pressing elements again.
Watford’s general method of pressing involves cutting off passes centrally to funnel the ball out to the full-backs. At that point, they ramp up the intensity of their closing down to force the FB onto their weaker foot so they can pounce on a loose pass into midfield:
They really like winning the ball off the left-sided central midfielder or the opposition #6, with Will Hughes leading the charge and Doucouré covering huge amounts of ground to apply pressure. Declan Rice’s press resistance is going to be tested here. I really like that Chelsea clip at the end where you have 4 Watford players who collapse together to challenge the second ball off a cross.
This type of play might not be as much of an issue for West Ham as we invariably go long from our goal kicks and don’t try to build from the back too often. But our back four need to be wary and alert to the way Watford are going to try and trap them and Fredericks/Cresswell need to be able to move the ball quickly. Issa Diop has generally been the player in recent games to launch the ball forward when there’s nothing else on — Ogbonna will pass it to his partner and pass on responsibility for those lumps forward. Whether that’s by design because Diop is deemed the stronger passer over long distances or not, if Watford have identified that, he’ll need support.
This isn’t a game where we can afford to carry Noble in the side because of how slow he is on the ball, especially in deeper areas. I’d also be reluctant to pick Lanzini here if he’s going to play on the left of midfield.
Going back to tackles and pressures reveals a potential exploitable defensive weakness in this Watford side: Kiko Femenía.
With Watford’s ball progression and passes into the box coming in a large part through Femenía down the right, coupled with how high up he plays, it’s maybe not surprising that attacking down that side is fruitful. And while his attacking movement is a factor, the way he defends presents the bigger opportunity.
Femenía presses the ball in the middle and defensive 3rds far more regularly than his LB, Adam Masina, and attempts tackles in his own 3rd far more often than the rest of his back 4.
The Watford RB’s tendency to go chasing the ball and the eagerness with which he closes down causes his team problems. As a result, having someone pacy on that side who can take advantage of that by dribbling past him or making runs off the ball in behind can be a difference maker. Femenía’s tunnel vision when it comes to engaging his direct opponent often leaves his CBs exposed:
While the Hornets might be effective when it comes to being proactive defensively, it’s clear that they’re weaker at more structured deeper defending. In the above vid you can see that as part of their pressing approach Watford players, especially their midfielders, gamble on winning tackles to try and regain possession. That’s great when it comes to generating turnovers in the opposition third, but less useful on the edge of your own box as it gives opponents the opportunity to dribble past them or to circumvent them by moving the ball quickly. They seem particularly bad at allowing opponents to shoot from the D.
For a team that defends the way Burnley do, that’s not an issue as their defensive structure means they have lots of bodies in the way to block shots, but a lot of the efforts in the above clips are relatively unchallenged and open.
Combining those two things, what you really need to punish Watford for their shortcomings is a right-footed shooter who plays on the left and wants to cut inside. Unfortunately for us, we’ve got two of those players on the right (Bowen and Yarmolenko) but no-one who fits that profile on the opposite flank. I’d be tempted to move Antonio out there and play Haller through the middle or to play both of them up top and tell Antonio to drift to the left like he did vs Burnley. Antonio’s not exactly the cleanest striker of the ball for shots from range, and you never want to fiddle with something that’s clearly working by moving him out of the central striking role, but he has the tools to capitalise on Watford’s defensive failings down their right side.
The issue with doing that is removing the possibility of Antonio’s dynamic running exacerbating Watford’s agility problems in the heart of defence. None of their CB options have particularly good acceleration or change direction well on the move:
If we could find a way to get Antonio the ball in the channels or feed him into feet and get turned, Craig Dawson would be in trouble.
Brief set piece point — the goal Gayle scored from a corner was remarkably similar to our first against Norwich and Souček’s disallowed goal vs Chelsea:
That near post flick could be worth trying here, too.
Speaking of set pieces and Craig Dawson, in their 6 games post-restart he’s had 14 shots and scored half of Watford’s non-penalty goals (the other two were a Bednarek OG and a Danny Welbeck worldie). Here’s a map of every shot he’s taken in the Premier League in the last 5 season side-by-side with every shot that’s resulted in a goal:
In all of the footage I watched, he attacks the ball towards the back stick but moves more towards the centre if the delivery is a little short. On that basis, he seem to be better at attacking balls crossed from the right flank (our left side). We need to be on our toes to avoid giving away cheap fouls and corners.
Keys to the Game:
- Be wary of the Watford press: don’t overcomplicate things, especially in full-back areas.
- Stop their ball progression down the right: disrupt the Femenía/Sarr/ Hughes connection. Don’t get too tight to Sarr because he will spin you and will make you regret it.
- Exploit and punish Femenía’s willingness to press in his defensive 3rd: use clever runs to draw him under the flight of the ball to make room for overlapping runs. Split movements of our forwards — one coming deep, one in behind — will create indecision and we can reap the rewards from it.
- Cut inside and dribble: Watford’s CMs are going to throw themselves into tackles. Take advantage of their over-commitment and move the ball quickly around the edge of the box to get shots off.
- Isolate Craig Dawson and make him change direction on the move: he will fall over and make a tit of himself.
- Overload the far post at defensive set pieces to negate Dawson’s threat there.