On the 29th of February, 2020, Ismaïla Sarr and Watford famously shocked the world of sports by doing what previous Premier League opponents could not in 44 occasions— beat Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool. The Watford side that prevailed (convincingly, scoring three goals) was coached by none other than Nigel Pearson, looking to pull off yet another “Great Escape”, reminiscent of Leicester’s own in 2015. Those performances against the Premier League’s finest proved Pearson’s tactical nous, Watford’s discipline, and provided us with another great underdog story —which is exactly what will be analysed, dissected, and explained in the tactical analysis below. Please enjoy our analysis.
A game of miskicks, counter-attacks, and bad decision-making
The first of two matches that will be looked at was played on the 14th of December at Anfield with Watford lining up in the following 4–2–3–1 formation, while their opponents hosted the game with an attacking line-up lead by The Big Three: Mo Salah, Firmino, and Sadio Mané. Andrew Robertson came on in the second half to complete Liverpool’s dangerous full-back partnership.
Watford’s medium block designed to cancel out the Reds
In a game where most chances originated from quick transitions, Nigel Pearson’s Watford lined up in a 4–4–2 when defending in a low and medium block. Doucouré joined Deeney in denying Liverpool central progression by marking any pivot (sometimes double, sometimes lone). When either opposition pivot dropped out, no Watford player followed in order to keep the midfield as tight as before.
Yet Liverpool famously use Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold as their outlets. In theory, they should have been limited to as little space and time on the ball as possible due to the exterior midfielders (Gerard Deulofeu and Ismaïla Sarr) jumping to them whenever they were passed to.
Both however often failed in doing so — and Liverpool occasionally found their way around Watford’s press. Every now and again, the narrow wingers would arrive just too late, caused by Watford’s compact build and the full-backs’ wide positioning. The Hornets’ wingers attempted at exploited this by jumping earlier, but this only widened the distance between them and the central midfielders, upon which Liverpool capitalised using wall passes. Either a winger dropping deep in the half-space (Shaqiri) or a central midfielder higher up the pitch (Henderson) could link the ball to Alexander-Arnold to bypass Watford’s first pressing line.
Watford’s block also seemed vulnerable to switches of play due to Doucouré’s & Deeney’s slow shifting. Subsequently, former Ajax defender Van Dijk and Gomez circulated the ball to find the spare man in front of them. Whenever the ball moved to wider areas, only three of four Watford midfielders would follow, leaving one isolated in case of a switch. Troy Deeney however — competitive as he is — took pleasure in brawling in midfield, regularly disrupting Liverpool and any comfort they had in possession.
Furthermore, the Watford block showed other basic yet essential principles. Whenever the opponent passed the ball backwards (while it is travelling, no threat exists), the block moved up. By forcing those harmless passes, the team in black and yellow could drive Liverpool farther away from their penalty area. In essence, a backwards pass acts as a pressing trigger.
Pearson’s Watford also showed reluctance to enter their own penalty area, just as disciplined low blocks do. That penalty area outline is effectively a reference point for defenders, crossing that line is the last resort.
Inside the box, of course, a potential foul would harm Watford more.
During such moments, the back four remains structured as always. While the centre-backs shut down the centre, the central midfielders also condense the space between the lines very well. Mariappa and Sarr press the ball carrier and receiver harmlessly (the space is not occupied and also easily closed down), increasing the distance within the block. Ball-far full-back Femenia remains in access of Alexander-Arnold, while offensive-minded midfielder Doucouré defends zone 14 and has access to opponents attempting to occupy the zone.
High pressing Watford leaves a lot to be desired
In other defensive situations where Liverpool found themselves in the first phase (a.k.a. the build-up), Watford pressed high occasionally. Fearing Liverpool’s technical superiority, they dropped off into a medium block. Nevertheless, Pearson’s Hornets did press Liverpool in their half from time to time.
On paper, this looks an effective press (despite the 2 v 3 underload in the penalty area) but as soon as the ball is forced out wide, the angles can be narrowed to a minimum. The press effectively limits Gomez to a short pass to Alexander-Arnold or a long ball down the channel.
Liverpool’s creative right-back is marked by Deulofeu however and would be forced into having one touch. Henderson, the nearest midfielder, is marked by Capoue. If Gomez could turn, however, Watford are suddenly underloaded. Gini Wijnaldum is the outlet if Alisson receives, and half of Watford’s outfield team could be passed by.
Liverpool managed to bypass this high pressing scheme on several occasions creating chances that contributed to their xG tallying 1.57 — below their average of 1.94 per game.
Structure in possession
Watford never seemed to settle in a well-spaced structure during possession phases, which was perhaps a testament to the dedication and time claimed by the defensive block in training.
Watford’s conservative build-up may be seen as a complement to Liverpool’s lethal pressing and scoring ability, but deploying a back three also offers more angles to progress the play. In this particular game, however, it seemed Watford was caught between two stools during the second phase.
Neither full-back would advance high up off the ball, and they built with a safe double-pivot while the back three was not properly spaced out horizontally. Higher up, Doucouré would play off the right to Deeney, while Deulofeu & Sarr provided the width.
Progressing play towards Liverpool’s goal
Possibly due to the game’s context, i.e. coming to an unbeaten Anfield with a mere eight points, Watford’s settled offence lacked real threat.
On the rare occasions when the ball was in their possession for an extended amount of time, the Hornets tended to overload the far-side for a long ball. Troy Deeney is often targeted – he has a good leap but above all, the pitbull in him intimidates opponents in the air.
Yet, most of Watford’s 1.01 xG stemmed from counter-attacks. The Hertfordshire club quickly transitioned through Deulofeu, Sarr, and Deeney. The latter is pivotal in all of Watford’s attacking, and the link player in offensive transitions, receiving the ball into feet. Both wingers rather receive the ball in space during counter-attacks, despite Deulofeu’s efficient habit of cutting inside. Their high xG score suggests unfortunate finishing on Watford’s end, which seemed accurate enough considering the miskicks which both Sarr and Deulofeu went on to rue.
Another problem Watford encountered on these counter-attacks was their decision-making. The majority of Watford’s attacked in regret, as players often took the wrong decisions in crucial moments. This, however, could be worked on with small-sided games, where space and time decreases. Those elements contribute to having to decide in a split second.
Watford performed very well on the Anfield grass, yet horrid finishing and decision-making contributed to them leaving Merseyside without any points.
Their defensive shape was great at blocking central access despite minor flaws, which nonetheless laid the foundation work for the reverse fixture, on the 29th of February, 2020.
The reverse fixture: where throw-ins stung Liverpool twice
Over two months later, the two teams would meet again on matchweek 28 of the Premier League. During this period, Liverpool gathered another 30 points, an average of three per game. Watford collected 24 all season. A 55-point gap in Liverpool’s favour alluded to yet another win. Nobody foresaw what would take place at Vicarage Road.
Traditionally, Nigel Pearson fitted his starting eleven into 4–2–3–1, with club legend Troy Deeney leading the line (by example), quick wingers Sarr and Deulofeu threatening down the wingers, and Doucouré playing off the right of Deeney. Merseyside opponents Liverpool missed Joe Gomez next to Van Dijk, while Keïta also missed the game due to injury. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain filled the gap, completing the midfield three together with Fabinho and Wijnaldum.
An altered block set-up
As shown in the analysis of the reverse fixture, Doucouré and Deeney formed the first pressing line to mark Liverpool’s double pivot. The Reds attempted at exploiting this by pushing their 8’s higher up, while Fabinho remained the lone pivot in order to create an overload between Watford’s tight lines.
Pearson, however, was quick in assessing this potential danger and instructed to defend in a 4–5–1 as seen below.
This set-up offered more protection in width but sacrificed Watfords half-space occupation. This lane is considered to be the most dangerous on a football pitch, as players have the best overview of the field, while the position is perfect for crosses into the blind-side. Above all, it’s essentially the golden mean of the wing & central spaces.
This meant Liverpool’s centre-backs or dropping midfielders could afford more space and time on the ball in the half-spaces. But from the first goal onwards, Watford used their momentum to be more aggressive and thus press the ball carrier more.
The snapshot above shows the settled 4–5–1 block, with wingers Deulofeu (until being replaced by Roberto Pereyra due to a bad landing) and Sarr tracking back to engage Liverpool’s full-backs immediately — another problem Watford were exposed to in the reverse fixture which Pearson adjusted with evident effect. The outcome resembles a 6–3–1 formation.
Another improvement on their last meeting was the spacing between Watford’s lines. This is not to imply Liverpool were offered too much space between the defensive and midfield lines in December, but rather that — despite their gritty work ethic— Watford defended deeper and due to their settled defence, this naturally reduced space.
In the second phase, Watford maximised their tight lines to full effect by applying several marking tactics. Opposition players moving between the defensive and midfield lines would be passed on by Watford players, as seen in the picture above. Mo Salah moving inside means Masina can leave him as he has passed the line as shown below. Doucouré will now close the out-to-in lane to put Salah in his shadow.
The white line represents the border at which players communicate in order to pass on opponents. Watford used this zonal marking very well (and to more effect than in the reverse fixture).
A more stabilised offensive structure
Earlier, Watford’s disjointed attacking plan was mentioned and it would only be fair to credit them for the development shown on our screens.
Watford’s formation resembled a 4–2–4 in possession: with the full-backs staying relatively low, acknowledging Liverpool’s offensive threat but also to overload build-up. Capoue and Hughes, who keeps the ball ticking, formed a double pivot — again — precautiously. Doucouré would of course play off the right of Deeney, attempting to run and receive in behind if the latter wins the header. Deulofeu or Pereyra and Sarr would widen the pitch.
The Hornets enjoyed only 29.2% possession, yet racked up a total of 1.70 xG — much higher than Liverpool’s 0.22. Most progress was made due to Liverpool’s high line, which the outlets Deeney and his wingers happily exploited. Simply said, Klopp’s back-line could not keep up with Sarr’s runs into space.
A brilliant asset to Deeney’s game is his fury in battles. When challenging for headers, he recognises which duels are there to be won and which are not. In this instance, he holds Lovren to prevent him from jumping. Doucoué runs on and of course, sets up Sarr for the opener.
On the 14th of December — Pearson’s debut game in charge of Watford — the Hornets were one of the first teams to tactically dismantle but also threaten the soon-to-be champions of England. The Watford coaching staff worked on what worked and what did not work in 2019, improving on both for the reverse fixture.
Liverpool’s first Premier League loss came at the hands of a stubborn side that prevented any central access, while also undoing their wide threats (Robertson and Alexander-Arnold). Outlet Deeney and runners Sarr and Doucouré offered more of a threat in the final third which they lacked in December.