Arsenal will head to Watford in matchweek 3. The Hornets have one point from two difficult opening fixtures. They drew 1-1 at Southampton on the opening day before giving away a one-goal lead in the second half home to Chelsea last week in a 2-1 home defeat.
In Walter Mazzarri Watford have an experienced manager with Champions League experience but this is his first job outside Italy as either a player or manager. How quickly he adapts to the less tactical, more chaotic Premier League will go a long way in determining what kind of season Watford have.
Mazzarri has opted for an Italian-style 3-5-2 to start the season. He’s used the same starting 11 in their first two fixtures. Sebastian Prödl plays in the middle of the back three with Craig Cathcart to his right and Miguel Britos to his left. Valon Behrami plays in the middle of midfield with Adlène Guédioura to his right and Etienne Capoue to his left in the shuttling midfield roles. Nordin Amrabat plays right wing back, José Holebas is the left wing back. Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney partner up front.
Watford general approach
I’m sure Mazzarri, whose previous management jobs include a successful spell at Napoli and a less successful spell at Inter, wouldn’t appreciate the comparison but Watford are built a bit like the old Tony Pulis Stoke sides that caused us so much difficulty over the years. Like those Stoke sides, the most striking feature of this Watford side is their physical stature. In their opening two games against Chelsea and Southampton 8 of their 10 outfield starters were 6 feet or taller and they had an average height of 6’1”. By contrast Arsenal had just two starting outfield players 6 feet or taller against Leicester, Holding and Koscielny, and averaged just 5’10”. Watford’s average weight was 172 lbs., 10 lbs. more than Arsenal’s average of 162 lbs.
Therefore I expect Mazzarri’s side to continue to look to take advantage of their size advantage by bullying Arsenal in physical battles, just as they attempted against Southampton and Chelsea. They’ll hope to take advantage of set pieces and look to get the ball wide to the wing backs and hit crosses into the box towards Deeney and Ighalo.
We’ll need to be cautious about not conceding free kicks in areas where they can get their giant center backs Cathcart, Britos and Prödl into the box. Tracking the runs of Ighalo, Deeney and Capoue from midfield (if he’s available after Diego Costa smashed his outstretched leg) when the ball goes wide will be important.
Watford are more concerned with controlling territory than controlling possession. Only Sunderland and Burnley have lower average possession than Watford’s 40.4% after the first two matches. Only Crystal Palace, Sunderland, Burnley and West Brom have a lower pass success rate than Watford’s 72.5%.
They are pretty short on ideas in the attacking phase of the game. Remarkably they’ve scored 2 goals in the opening 2 matches from just 3 shots on target. While 2 goals from 3 shots on target indicates an impressive conversion rate it is not sustainable. They’ll need to find more creativity to have a successful season.
Their main form of attack seems to be to get the ball wide to Amrabat and Guedioura in the right channel and hit crosses in towards the back post. This means Holding and the diminutive Bellerin will have to be alert to back post runs and Monreal and Alexis will have to close down Amrabat to prevent him from picking out dangerous crosses. Both of Watford’s goals this season have come from crosses on the right towards the back post. Against Southampton in the opener Amrabat found Deeney at the back post. From there Deeney cushioned a header for Capoue to smack in. Against Chelsea Guedioura crossed from the right towards Deeney at the penalty spot. Deeney couldn’t get anything on the header but his leap put Branislav Ivanovic off enough that that he couldn’t get a touch either and the ball fell for Capoue to volley in at the back post.
They’re not at all reluctant to knock it long from deep inside their own half towards the powerful Deeney to flick on for Ighalo. The graphic below shows Deeney’s received passes against Southampton and Chelsea, a number of them coming from long balls.
They completed just 39 of 76 attempted passes in the attacking third of the pitch against Chelsea for a pass completion rate of 51.3% and were. They weren’t much tidier against Southampton where they completed 52 of 96 attacking third passes for a 52.4% pass success rate. Many of those attempted attacking third passes were longer balls from deeper positions.
Their attacks are vertical and direct. They won’t look to tap it patiently around midfield waiting for an opening in the opposition defense but instead will get it wide to the wing backs as quickly as possible then crash the box for crosses coming in from the channels.
Defensively, Watford start in a 3-5-2 when the opposition has the ball in their own half and they’ll apply some pressure in midfield. When the opposition advances the ball into their own half the wing backs will drop off and join the three center backs in a defensive bank of five. Against Chelsea Ighalo and Deeney would work back to prevent easy entry passes into N’Golo Kante so Xhaka may have to work to find space.
I thought in the opening half Watford did well to press Chelsea when the Blues won the ball back, preventing Conte’s side from getting out on the counter. However, when Watford are defending higher up the pitch in a 3-5-2 there are pockets of space between the wing backs, center midfielders and wider center backs that I think Alexis in particular will be able to exploit.
The screen shot below shows Chelsea with possession inside their own half. John Terry is receiving a pass from Kante. Amrabat pushes up the pitch to apply pressure to Chelsea left back Azpilicueta. Guedioura is tight to Matic in midfield. Behind them and out of screen are the Watford back three. There is space behind Guedioura and Amrabat and in front of Cathcart, the right-sided center back, for a player like Alexis to drift into and get on the ball. If he receives possession in those pockets of space Cathcart will have to pull wide and do a lot of 1 v. 1 defending against Sanchez in wider areas. Cathcart can play right back so isn’t entirely uncomfortable defending in the channels but it is a matchup you’d favor Alexis to win at least a few times. Also, Ozil will be quick to drift to wide areas to provide overloads when Cathcart and Britos are forced to defend in wider positions than they’d like.
Chelsea also occasionally had success playing long cross field diagonals into Hazard behind Amrabat, allowing him to get on the ball in space and run at Cathcart. Xhaka was wayward with his long passing last weekend at Leicester (the graphic below shows his long passing in that match) but he showed the ability at Mönchengladbach to accurately hit those long diagonal balls. With accurate long diagonals we should get Alexis isolated against Cathcart in the channel.
Width from our fullbacks key
Finally I think getting width from the fullbacks will be important. Southampton played an extremely narrow diamond 4-4-2 which played right in to Watford’s strengths. With their 3-5-2 Mazzarri’s side have 8 players taking up central positions then the two wing backs in wide areas. They’re well equipped to deal with narrow attacks. Space will come from overloading them in the channels. Therefore expect Bellerin and Monreal to play an important role in advancing the ball up the pitch.
Watford are strong and powerful but an extremely limited side technically. My biggest concern is they get an early lift from the home crowd and batter us with an aerial assault and maybe nick a goal. If we deal with any early onslaught without conceding we should grow into the game and dominate. The return of Giroud and particularly Ozil to the starting lineup should provide a massive boost. While I don’t currently have a huge amount of faith in Wenger to prepare the team tactically, I’m hoping the gap in quality will be too much for Mazzarri’s side to overcome.