In what was expected to be a one-sided affair with Liverpool looking to extend their unbeaten streak to 45 games and Watford winless in their last five matches, Watford arguably pulled off the upset of the Premier League season with a 3-0 victory at Vicarage road.
As was expected, Liverpool dominated possession enjoying 70.8%. However, this did not materialise into the quality of chances created with expected goals (xG) of 0.22 and just one shot on target in the box, in comparison to Watford’s xG of 1.70 and four shots in the box. Two teams who both looked to gain three points but for very different reasons, this was a much-needed win for Watford who find themselves in a relegation battle, in contrast to Liverpool who’s 2019/20 Premier League campaign is all but expected to end in a first league title in 30 years.
Below is a tactical analysis of this Premier League encounter which explores both team’s attempt to execute their game plan and tactics, highlighting prominent principles of play used by each team with the support of relevant data and statistics.
With a near full-strength squad to choose from apart from Daryl Janmaat, there was a notable return of young attacking prospect Israel Sarr meaning Watford set up in a compact 4-5-1 formation with Capoue shielding the back four.
Troy Deeney lead the line and was supported by and Sarr and Deulofeu who although largely known for their attacking threat, had substantial defensive roles throughout the game. This was evident when Watford dropped into a low block, playing what looked like a 6-3-1 with Sarr and Deulofeu dropping deep to support the back four attempting to counteract Liverpool’s dynamic full-backs T. Alexander-Arnold and A. Robertson.
Liverpool set up in their usual 4-3-3 formation with however two notable absentees, center-back Joe Gomez meaning Dejan Lovren entered the line up alongside Virgil Van Dijk and club captain Jordan Henderson was also out injured meaning Fabihno re-joined the starting line up in defensive midfield.
It seemed to be business as usual for Liverpool who dominated possession throughout and pressed aggressively to win the ball back, lead by their front three threat of Mane, Salah, and Firmino.
Watford’s defensive shape
Watford dropped deep in a low block with very little space in between the lines, consistently maintaining a numerical advantage in central areas. Watford allowed Virgil Van Dijk and Dejan Lovren to maintain possession of the ball, remaining compact, and only affording space on either the left and right flanks, allowing very few penetrative passes through any central areas with just 3 out of 12 through passes successful (25%) throughout the game.
As expected, Liverpool’s full-backs played extremely high when in possession (A. Robertson highlighted). Watford adapted their shape to counteract this at times by playing in a 6-3-1 (see below), with Deulufeo and Sarr embracing their defensive duties and dropping in on either side of the Watford full-backs. Watford’s compact low block meant Liverpool’s full-backs received the ball in front of the Watford defense, in what was more often than not a 1 vs 2 situation in wide areas as Salah, Firmino, and Mane typically moved centrally to allow Alexander Arnold and Robertson space.
Watford’s dominance in duels centrally
The figure below indicates the number of duels won by each team in each segment of the pitch, (Orange – Watford, Red – Liverpool).
What is evident here is the dominance Watford showed in the duels in central areas in their half, winning every duel in the central zone, and winning 70% of all duels from the width of their box up to the half-way line. This highlights the effectiveness of Watford’s low block leaving no space between their defensive and midfield units in addition to having numerical superiority in their defensive and midfield third consistently throughout the match.
Furthermore, in Liverpool’s box, Watford also showed their dominance winning 70% of duels highlighting that although they defended deep, Watford did commit men forward into the Liverpool box at throw-ins, corners and when Deeney received the ball underlining his effectiveness in these situations.
Watford outlet passes and support for Troy Deeney
Although Watford defended in a compact low block, they needed to have an attacking threat. Troy Deeney, commonly known for his physical presence when leading the line for Watford did this well, relieving pressure off the defenders and bringing others into play. Watford continually aimed to find Deeney especially in set pieces, goal kick, throw in situations, creating a trigger for players such as Sarr, Doucoure, and Deulofeu to make forward runs off him through the Liverpool defence.
The pass map below indicates the number/direction/intended target of Ben Foster’s long and short passing distribution throughout the match. Ben Foster’s distribution underlines this point further as he targeted Troy Deeney 16 times, compared to the next highest player Pereyra, two times. Additionally, only two attempts were made to play short indicating Watford did not want to invite Liverpool’s notorious high press and instead, aimed to relieve pressure trying to maintain possession off Deeney’s hold up play, higher up the pitch.
Troy Deeney vs Dejan Lovren
The inclusion of Dejan Lovren in the starting line-up proved to be a significant one as Troy Deeney decided to play up against him, as oppose to Virgil Van Dijk throughout the game. Dejan Lovren frequently tried to out-muscle and overpower Deeney upon receiving the ball however Deeney’s physicality is one of his greatest strengths, which he again proved in this fixture.
The figure below indicates the duels Watford players participated in against specific Liverpool players. Troy Deeney lead Watford players in the number of duels with 35, highlighting Watford’s reliance on direct play into him. More notably, however, 21 of these 35 duels came against Dejan Lovren as oppose to just two vs Van Dijk providing insight into what seemed to be a conscious decision by Troy Deeney to target Dejan Lovren in duels.
Watford’s tactics came to fruition in the seconds half as they opened the scoring through Israel Sarr (see below). Lovren attempts to outmuscle Deeney off a Watford throw losing the flight of the ball, while Doucoure and Sarr make forward runs off Deeney resulting in Doucoure crossing the ball across the six-yard box to an oncoming Sarr who finishes at close range.
Liverpool’s high defensive line
For Liverpool to win the ball back as quickly as possible, they aim to close down opposition quickly by reducing spaces between themselves and Watford players. This is helped by their high defensive line which allows for their midfielders and attacking front three two press high up the pitch to win the ball. However, during transitions between defence to attack Watford’s direct play into Troy Deeney and their willingness to commit forward runners beyond him caught Liverpool out on several occasions with a significant amount of space left in behind.
Above Liverpool’s back four are caught playing a high defensive line and are slow to react in the transition from attack to defence failing to drop deeper to reduce space in behind. Subsequently, Deeney plays the ball in behind Van Dijk for an oncoming Israel Sarr to run onto and finish making the score 2-0.
Liverpool enjoyed an overwhelming majority of ball possession 70.8% however what was evident was that they were unable to draw Watford out of their compact shape meaning the majority of Liverpool’s passes were played in the middle third in a lateral direction moving the ball from side to side unable to unlock the Watford low block.
The diagram above shows a passing combination analysis between two players, with the frequency being highlighted by the thickness of the black line. The thickest lines (most frequent pass combinations) are largely played across the Liverpool back four between Lovren (6) and Van Dijk (4) who searched for an opening using the full width of the pitch with Alexander Arnold (66) and Robertson (26) remaining high and wide for large periods of the game (see below).
By dropping into what at times looked like a 6-3-1 formation Watford was able to maintain overloads in wide areas whilst remaining compact in the central midfield area, keeping Liverpool’s possession in front of them and reducing them to lateral passing as opposed to penetrating passes between the lines which were few and far between.
Moreover, Liverpool did have overload opportunities on the opposite side to where the ball was located however as the ball was switched in Watford’s half, Watford players had enough time to shift across and create a numerical advantage again. Below we can see Van Dijk looks to play the ball on the left side of the pitch where Watford has a 3 vs 2 scenario. On the opposite side, Liverpool has a 3 vs 2 advantage however as the ball is switched, Hughes has time to move across and prevent this situation turning it into a 3 vs 3.
A huge win for Watford who are the first team to beat Liverpool in this 2019/20 Premier League campaign, gaining a vital three points in what looks to be a relegation battle that could go down to the final days of the season. Watford now looks ahead to an away fixture vs Crystal Palace in an attempt to build on an exceptionally disciplined and ruthless performance in which they executed their game plan to perfection.
Although Liverpool dominated possession throughout the game, they were unable to create enough goal scoring opportunities and penetrate Watford’s low block. Despite Liverpool having a lot at stake in the coming weeks, against Chelsea in the F.A Cup and Atletico Madrid in the Champions League, the loss is hardly damaging in a Premier League season in which it seems they have all but wrapped up the title sitting 25 points clear at the top of the table with 10 games to go. There will certainly be some intriguing weeks ahead as we wait to see whether other teams will follow Watford’s blueprint when facing this historic Liverpool side.