What can I say? I don’t understand the decision but we respect it. We tried to look for the resolution. There is a contact but it is not with his elbow, it is with his arm or hand, I don’t know which part exactly. I never saw an aggressive movement. I don’t understand why the referee took that decision.
– Javi Gracia, Watford head coach
Following Troy Deeney’s red card against Arsenal after only 11 minutes on Monday night, Javi Gracia was equal parts bemused and reticent. Deeney’s dismissal meant that Watford’s eventual defeat took on an early air of certainty. The player’s manager had every reason to lament losing his star.
In recent weeks, Deeney has been one of the top attackers in the Premier League. Since the start of February, the Watford captain’s xContribution per game (xG combined with xA) has sharply risen from 0.51 to 0.81. These rapid improvements now make him the highest ranked player in the league for xContribution. In this player tactical analysis, we shall use statistics and examples from three games bridging this period, to best explain his ascent.
The Doucouré effect
In the games against Brighton (drew 0-0), Cardiff (won 1-5) and Liverpool (lost 0-5), there were minor changes made to the squad. In each of these games, Deeney was partnered up front with Gerard Deulofeu, and the midfield remained largely unchanged. There was one noticeable difference, however. The French midfielder, Abdoulaye Doucouré, who missed most of January, replaced Tom Cleverly after the dismal draw against Brighton.
The re-inclusion of the powerful box-to-box midfielder, after publicly admitting that he hoped to leave in January, should not surprise anyone. However, statistical and tactical analysis demonstrates that the midfielder’s recent form has also boosted Deeney’s. This season, Watford’s top passer is Doucouré. According to whoscored.com, he has racked up an average of 53.5 passes per game. Furthermore, following his return to the side, he has smashed his own high season averages.
Against Everton, Cardiff and then Liverpool, Doucouré averaged a whopping 62 passes per game. Showing that he is adding to the Watford attack, in each of these performances, well over half have been forward passes. Likewise, the below pass maps show how his place in the centre of the field is crucial in feeding the attack, and Deeney in particular.
Movement and mobility
Despite being an iconic number nine, Deeney needs players around him to thrive. Simply passing the ball forward to him is not enough to boost his xContribution. There are multitudes of reasons for this, but most of these centre around Deeney’s lack of top-quality positional awareness. Against Brighton, for example, he spent long periods stuck in the middle of the pitch. His lack of imagination resulted in a thorough marshalling from Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy.
However, Deeney has clearly worked on his own movement and mobility. Whilst intelligent attacking running is not part of his game, a tactical analysis will indicate that he has made improvements. Doucouré’s dominance has allowed him to push higher up, but Deeney has also taken the initiative to move into channels and pockets of space.
Against Cardiff, Deeney recorded an assist and two goals. His assist came following the deftest of movements from his marker, giving himself a yard of space to turn on the ball. Whilst the ball spilt away from him, Deulofeu was on hand to score a brilliant drive.
Likewise, against Liverpool, we saw similar examples of the Watford skipper making threatening runs. The below graphics show Deeney’s desire to take up proactive positions, even if he is a little clumsy in doing so. Regardless, his skilful inter-play with Deulofeu remained strong as they fashioned an excellent chance between them.
Watford’s shape and formation: a tactical analysis
Watford have also accommodated Deeney too, even if on paper any change looks minimal. For most of the season, Gracia has resolutely opted for a 4-2-2-2 formation. This setup has been used routinely, with whoscored.com showing that the Spaniard has already used this shape 30 times across the campaign.
A dramatic positional change has therefore not altered how Deeney has suddenly picked up form, yet, subtle changes can’t be overlooked. On the pitch, Watford have evolved this formation. Arguably, as a tactical analysis will show, the side have reinterpreted it to make Deeney the focal point of Watford’s attack.
In the match against Brighton, we saw Deeney primarily supporting Deulofeu. Whilst the La Masia graduate became the main forward, Deeney was crowbarred into central positions designed to supplement Deulofeu. His positioning may have had something to do with Cleverley and Ken Sema’s inability to match Doucouré dynamism in the centre of the park. Nonetheless, deep in midfield and with his back to goal, Deeney was rendered impotent. Both he and Watford have since adapted to ensure his recent form.
Noticeably, in the games against Cardiff and Liverpool, Watford reorganised their attacking options. Against Cardiff, we saw Deeney hogging the central areas, with Deulofeu and Roberto Pereyra supporting. Against Liverpool, Watford were hoping to target space around Joël Matip, avoiding the unbeatable Virgil van Dijk. In both instances, our tactical analysis shows us that Deeney was the main attacking inspiration. The graphics below provide examples of how this was done.
A word of caution
Finally, however, we must take these findings with a pinch of salt. Deeney’s proficiency in front of goal for both scoring and assisting his teammates has improved. Yet, as the graph shows, his game does have a tendency to hit peaks and troughs. This should be as expected.
Throughout the season, Deeney has not been consistent in attack. Despite his recent improvement in his form, there were episodes earlier on in the campaign where he was also exceptional up front. The 3-1 away victory over Burnley in August is notable, as this saw his highest xContribution per 90 minutes. At Turf Moor, he assisted Andre Gray within the opening three minutes. He later scored shortly after half time, with Doucouré assisting.
This is not to denigrate the findings and statistics in front of us, however. We just have to remember that a big part of Deeney’s game is his all action, committed displays. Across the whole of the Premier League this season, whoscored.com ranks Deeney 7th with regard to the most attempted tackles per game, amongst strikers with five or more appearances. He’s also ranked 4th in terms of total aerial battles per game for an attacker.
Deeney is not necessarily an inconsistent player, but rather, his attacking contribution fluctuates. This is because he is not an out-and-out striker, but a defensive forward who is keen to utilise a multi-faceted approach to his game. He often takes up the supportive role in the transition from defence to attack, as well as usually defending deeper as part of Watford’s low block.
This tactical analysis firstly acknowledges Javi Gracia for contributing greatly to Deeney’s recent form. The Watford manager has demonstrated his shrewdness by making Deeney the main threat of Watford’s attack, whilst not hampering the momentum his side have built this season. He has retained a 4-2-2-2 but encouraged his side to both utilise Deeney’s qualities and mask his shortcomings. Likewise, he has also found the right personnel to get the best out of his skipper.
Deeney has also worked on his mobility and intelligence. Whilst still not highlights of his game, the Watford captain has made an effort to get into more threatening positions. Despite this, we have to remember what Deeney’s role in the side is. Unquestionably, he is increasingly being regarded as a pillar of the attack. However, his influence in the dressing room will always be down his dedicated universality, over pure goal-scoring nous. Therefore, deviations in his attacking form have to be seen as common. As his red card on Monday night showed, you try to predict Troy Deeney at your peril.