Premier League 2019/20: Watford vs Manchester United – Tactical Analysis

Premier League 2019/20: Watford Fc Vs Manchester United - Tactical Analysis

In the latest round of Premier League, 2019/20 fixtures Watford took on Manchester United. This tactical analysis will break down the tactics used by Nigel Pearson and the tactics used by Ole Gunnar Solskjær.

Watford came into this game in poor form with only one win all season and none at home.  The Hornets record against United is also very poor as they have lost 14 of their last 15 meetings in the top fight.  However, this analysis will look at how Pearson was able to pull off this result and get a vital win for his side.

As for United, a win could have taken them to fifth in the league depending on the result of the Tottenham vs Chelsea game. It would also have been their first back to back wins away from home since February. However, this result only piles the pressure on Ole.


Premier League 2019/20: Watford Fc Vs Manchester United - Tactical Analysis - tactics

Despite their defeat last time out to Liverpool, Watford could take a lot of positives from that performance. Tactically they limited Liverpool to very little.  If it was not for woeful finishing the Hornets could have walked away with something from the game.  Due to that performance, it was no surprise that Pearson kept the same team and 4-2-3-1 system.  The new tactical set up for Watford means that Will Hughes is pushed back to a central position alongside Étienne Capoue. This is to utilise his defensive qualities. He was able to win 60% of his ground duels 12/20. He also made 13 recoveries. It also means Abdoulaye Doucouré can play higher up the pitch where he can influence the game more.

Ole also kept with the same team and the 4-2-3-1 system. This is unsurprising as they have won 4 out of 5 games in all competition. Despite a draw, last time out to Everton, Ole has settled on a system that makes the most of his attacking players.  Similarly, Fred and Scott McTominay have started to develop a partnership that is dominating the midfield in games.  This is due to their accurate passing which continued in this game with McTominay completing 86% of his lateral passes. Fred completed 68/76 (89%) of his short to medium passes showing the type of passes the two players look for.


In the early stages of the game, it is clear how the hosts want to set up. When defending the 4-2-3-1 transitions to a deep 4-4-2 as Doucouré pushes up alongside Troy Deeney. This happens as the two players are then able to put pressure on United’s midfield pairing.  The home side then has two sets of four covering the space behind the front two.

This example shows how Watford is set up. As Hughes and Capoue are covering the middle of the pitch where Jesse Lingard likes to operate in. Because of the numerical advantage to Watford, it forced Manchester United to go wide. The Hornets were equally prepared for this as the four in the middle where flat. This meant that unless United’s full-backs pushed forward Watford could double up on Daniel James and Marcus Rashford. Sitting deep also meant there was no space for United’s wide men to run into. This is when they can be most effective.

Premier League 2019/20: Watford Fc Vs Manchester United - Tactical Analysis - tactics

United breaking the lines

Manchester United has struggled to break down teams who have sat back against them this year.  This is why Ole opted for Jesse Lingard in the number ten role. He is most effective when he drifts into the pockets providing a forward passing option for the midfield pairing. The problem for United is he did not pick up these positions enough. Even when he did the accuracy of the pass was not good enough as the only competed for 47/88. This is one of the areas Watford were better at as they completed 64% of their progressive passes enabling to build attacks more efficiently.

Nevertheless, there where warning signs early on that United would be able to get around how deep the home side were positioned.  This example shows one of the few occasions McTominay was able to find a pass to Anthony Martial. He was quickly able to get the ball wide to James. This is where the away side can be dangerous as Martial is good at finding space in between the midfield and the defence. Luckily for Watford, he snaps at the shot and it trickles wide. Nevertheless, it shows where they can be dangerous.

Premier League 2019/20: Watford Fc Vs Manchester United - Tactical Analysis - tactics

Hornets struggle to get out

The way the Hornets are set up is to contain Manchester United. They were not concerned when United had the ball on the halfway line as they knew they were unlikely to find a ball that would be able to cause them problems. Therefore Pearson was tactically happy for United to have the majority of the ball. The away side had 66% of the ball. United have only won 1 game out of 12 when they had more than 50% of the ball.

Watford’s problem was transitioning from defence to attack. This was because of how deep every player was and United had numbers forward. This example shows how the Hornets struggled. Kiko Femenía intercepts a pass from Aaron Wan-Bissaka. He tries to drive forward with the ball but is quickly closed down by four players and does not have an out ball with McTominay covering the middle.  This was a constant theme thorough out the half.

Premier League 2019/20: Watford Fc Vs Manchester United - Tactical Analysis - tactics

Second Half

From the first half, it was clear that Watford were too deep, making it difficult for them to get out of defence. As a result, Pearson made a tactical change at half time. This was to push everyone further up the pitch to force united back. The danger with this is it leaves more room in behind for Manchester United attackers to run into.

However this tactical changed worked well for Watford. As their higher match tempo of 18.3 compared to United’s 17 (number of passes per minute)meant that United could not keep up with Watford’s intensity.  This enabled them to win more battles on the pitch as they were able to win 47% of duels compared to 41% in the first half. It is also winning these battles in the important area as Watford were able to win more duels in Manchester United s half.  This kept them in threating areas. United’s attack struggled to win the same battles in Watford’s half.

This shows the difference in the areas of the pitch Watford were able to compete in and how United’s changed.

Premier League 2019/20: Watford Fc Vs Manchester United - Tactical Analysis - tactics

Watford’s reward

It may be fair to say that this season Watford has had many decisions go against them this season. This has directly affected the results of some of their games this season. With their persistence, in this game, they got their reward.

The goal happened because Ismaïla Sarr was able to draw the foul from McTominay, giving Watford a set piece in a dangerous area.  This is something Pearson has worked on as Christian Kabasele was the target with Sarr immediately pulling off to the side for the volley. His run was not tracked by United giving him a free shot at goal. Nevertheless, it is still a poor mistake from David de Gea.

Not long after going 1-0 up the Hornets were able to double their advantage this time from the penalty spot. The penalty happened because Watford had more players closer to Deeney expecting the knock-on. This is what happens for the penalty as Sarr’s pace means he can get to the ball first inviting the foul from Wan-Bissaka.

Premier League 2019/20: Watford Fc Vs Manchester United - Tactical Analysis - tactics

Paul Pogba’s return

Regardless of the score, it was likely that Ole would have wanted Pogba to get some minutes in this match. Unfortunately for United, they needed him to try and get back into the game. With this substitution, it meant that Ole switched to a 4-3-3.  This tactical switch was made to try and stretch Watford as it would push the two wide players out leaving more gaps in the middle for Pogba to try and find.

This tactical change did work as the away side were able to create a few half chances for themselves. This was because Pogba is much better at finding the forward pass as he completed 8/9 forward passes which is more than McTominay had made in the seventy minutes he was on for. Prior to Pogba’s introduction united had 2 shot on target after they had 6.

The best chance came to Mason Greenwood. This happened because of the tactical change as Greenwood started his run from wide meaning the defenders were stretched. Therefore he was able to run into the gap between Femenía and Craig Cathcart. The quality of the ball also caused  Ben Foster to gamble as he initially came out thinking he might be able to get there leaving him in no-man’s-land. Luckily for Watford, the young forward just put too much on his chip. This sealed Watford’s first home win and a much needed three points.

Premier League 2019/20: Watford Fc Vs Manchester United - Tactical Analysis - tactics


To conclude this tactical analysis, tactically Pearson got it right today. It was evident from minute one just how much his team wanted it today and arguably earned their slice of fortune today. It is a big result as they are now level on points with Norwich. The result could give them the belief that they could get themselves out of the situation they are in. With Sarr, Deeney and Gerard Deulofeu, the hornets might have finally found a balance that could threaten teams. However to give them any chance of survival they have to build from this win and get results in this hectic Christmas schedule.

As for United it only adds to the pressure on Ole. As they have had their worst start to a season ever. They will rue the missed opportunities but ultimately were outbattled today. Nevertheless having Pogba back looks like a massive boost as he made an impact straight away. His ability to find the forward pass is what they have been missing and he could be the key to a change in United’s season.

Total Football Analysis Magazine #16: December 2019

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