Wolves have had a nice week. They beat Arsenal by three goals to one on Thursday night. On the other side, Watford merely grabbed a point in the one-one draw against Southampton. After Shane Long scored the fastest goal in the Premier League history, Andre Gray levelled things up in the 90th minute.
There have been two clashes between these two teams already this season. Watford had won both games and scored a total of five goals. The FA Cup semi-final was a memorable one. Watford overcame a two-goal deficit to win 3-2 at Wembley. However, Wolves managed to win this game. Was it the results of Nuno Espírito Santo’s tactics or just a matter of luck? This tactical analysis will attempt to unfold Wolves’ victory against Watford.
Javi Gracia made some changes in line-up. Daryl Janmaat, Adam Masina and Christian Kabasele were left on the bench. Craig Cathcart was the player who started two successive games in the defensive line. He played with José Holebas, Adrian Mariappa, and Kiko Femenía in this game. Troy Deeney was still suspended, so Gray and Gerard Deulofeu started the game together. It was a 4-3-1-2 formation but it had some problems in this match.
Wolves played in a 3-5-2 formation again. All the key players started the game. Rúben Neves, João Moutinho and Leander Dendoncker formed the midfield trio. Matt Doherty and Jonny Castro were the wing backs. The influential Diogo Jota and Raúl Jiménez started in pairs again and they played well in this game.
Wolves’ build-up cancelled Watford’s defence
Wolves were looking for chances to counter when they had the ball unless Watford blocked the possible passing options. If Watford didn’t then Wolves would proceed to the build-up phase. Wolves possessed good players and they switched their positions. Four players were involved in the build-up phase and their positions were interesting.
The three centre backs: Willy Boly, Ryan Bennett and Conor Coady would split to provide passing options for each other. Neves would drop between the defenders, and it looked more like a four-man defensive line. Watford did not intend to press high, rather they protected the central areas. However, Wolves’ build-up made the defending in vain by spreading the ball wide. There were always three to five Watford players defending Moutinho and Dendoncker only.
Here were some scenes to illustrate their build-up. Pereyra, Gray and Deulofeu covered the central areas and eliminated all Wolves’ passing options to the centre. Also, Hughes and Doucouré stayed in the centre as well. However, Boly did not intend to find the central midfielders. He passed the ball to Otto who was freed on the left. Then, Wolves started their attack.
The same situation here. Six Watford players were defending in the central areas but only one Wolves player in the defensive zone. Boly and Otto stayed wide to provide width. Gray tried to press himself but in vain because of the numerical advantage created by the back four. And as a result, the ball carrier got a lot of time and space to decide who and where to pass. This build-up plan was successfully executed.
Wolves defended wisely
The 4-3-1-2 formation of Watford limited the ways to attack since there were no wide players. Watford could only penetrate through the centre but they failed to do so. Why? Wolves did not intend to press high or chase the ball in this match. Instead, they set a big net for the opposition. They wanted Watford to spread the ball to the wide areas.
No matter how many Watford players dropped to the centre, Wolves had five to six players to form a big net to constrain them as shown below. In this case, Doucouré was the only Watford player in the centre. He was trapped in the defensive zone of Wolves. Although Capoue still passed the ball to him, he was unable to turn. Doucouré’s closed body shape also prohibited the possibility to make a comfortable first-touch pass to Hughes. The only option he left was returning the ball to Capoue.
This time there were two Watford players in the net. They knew these players were unavailable to receive the ball. The option left was to pass to both sides. Mariappa could pass the ball to Femenía or Cathcart. Both were not good options as the attack cannot get started. If the ball was passed back to another central defender, then Wolves players will just adjust their positions to maintain the net. But they were also pleased to see Watford attacking both sides. We will see below.
Watford’s attack: no connection between players
Watford’s problems can be attributed to their formation. Usually, a 4-3-1-2 formation does not have wide midfielders. This means the team is weak on both sides, offensively and defensively. A coin has two sides. The benefit of this formation is the team could overload central areas. However, this time the formation did not work.
Firstly, the attacking problem. There were a couple of times a Watford player was forced to the left side without any support. I will talk about how Wolves created this situation later. You could see below, Roberto Pereyra did not have the option to pass forward. Obviously, Deulofeu and Will Hughes were not helping him and just stay far away from him. Pereyra’s body shape prohibited the back pass to Doucouré. The only option left is take-on the oppositions. But how could Pereyra dribble past three Wolves defenders? This resulted in a throw-in.
Another similar scene. Holebas got the ball on the left flank. He did not have many options. He was in one v two situations without any supports. Three Watford players were expecting a cross but Holebas decided to drift further forward first. Even though he could cross the ball into the box, Watford were outnumbered. Seven Wolves players were defending three Watford players. At last, he crossed the ball but Coady cleared it easily.
The defensive weakness of Watford
Another problem was a defensive one. A 4-3-1-2 formation does not have wide midfielders. Therefore, the wide areas are fragile, especially in this match. Wolves’ wing-backs stayed wide to stretch the pitch. And they had joy on both sides, especially Doherty.
Doherty joints the attack on the right side. This was an example, which became a goal scoring opportunity. It was a counter from Wolves and Cathcart was confused who to mark here. Jiménez made a run in front of Cathcart while Doherty was dashing forward. Moutinho had two options and he chose the better one: pass to Doherty. Jiménez’s run forced Cathcart to mark him and this left space for Doherty to shift the ball in. Jiménez got a chance to score but unluckily he was unable to convert it.
Movement of strikers
The Jota-Jiménez pair have been playing so well this season. The two strikers scored had 25 goals before the game in this campaign. Given the weakness of Watford’s formation I mentioned above. Jota and Jiménez split to both sides to help their teammates in this match. The heatmap below showed their movements. One of them would stay on one side and the other one lurked behind the widest defender on the other side. This tactic was a successful one and created the goal.
In this situation, Jota was one step ahead of Femenía. All Watford defenders were ball-watching. Doherty got the ball on the right as shown below. He could either pass to Jiménez or cross the ball to find Jota. He chose the latter option and eventually Jota headed the ball off target. The quality of this cross was not the best but it gave some hints to Wolves’ winning goal.
Jota scored the winning goal in a similar situation. He lurked between Mariappa and Femenía. It was Neves crossing the ball this time. When the cross came in, Jota had a pocket of space to finish it with his left foot thanks to his positioning. Although it was an error from Ben Foster since he came out too early.
Watford had 10 shots and Wolves got 11 in this match. Apparently, the game was an average one. However, this was not the truth. Wolves were clearly the better team. Actually, Watford only had one shot on target. Wolves were able to grab the chances. Nuno deserves credit. His game plans worked successfully and helped Wolves to win the game. Wolves are still fighting for a 7th place in the Premier League after this win. On the other side, Watford will now focus on the FA Cup final against Manchester City.
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