There was the 6-0 home loss to Manchester City. And the 4-2 defeat at Chelsea. Don’t forget the 4-2 home loss to Manchester United. And the 5-0 final at Liverpool. Worst of all might have been the 4-1 home loss to Huddersfield Town.
These results were the dark side of a 2017/18 campaign in which Watford were one of the Premier League’s most unreliable sides. There are already signs of change this season, despite minimal personnel changes under a manager who took over in the midst of the 2017/18 chaos. Jump ahead to 2018/19, and the ethos of those changes is apparent in media reports of internal policies such as fining players for every minute they’re late for training. It seems to be carrying over to the pitch, and the numbers support it.
Keeping the ball out of their own goal was Watford’s biggest problem last season, so we’ll start there. The Hornets’ 1.7 goals against per match wasn’t a great departure from their 1.57 expected goals against, meaning they weren’t particularly unlucky to be scored on at that rate. Simply put, they gave up too many strong scoring chances. They outshot their opponents, but their opponents’ chances were better, and that resulted in a minus-2o goal difference:
That hasn’t been the case this campaign. Again, they’ve conceded in line with their expected goals against, but that number is much lower:
Note, however, that Watford aren’t creating the kind of chances they’d need to sustain the 2.3 goals per match they’re averaging. Because of that, they should experience a dip in scoring as the season progresses, but that’s less of a concern because only one Premier League team was able to score at that rate last season.
The one big change Watford made this summer was at goalkeeper with Ben Foster, but he hasn’t yet been the reason they’ve succeeded. Foster has made six saves through four matches, and his 1.5 actual saves per match are a shade below his 1.89 expected saves:
So that hints at strong defending, which has by no means been Watford’s reputation in recent seasons. Their 64 goals against last season ranked third worst in the division ahead of only West Ham and Stoke, as did their 68 conceded the season before ahead of Sunderland and Hull. Three of those four sides were relegated.
That did not lead the Hornets to spend money on the back line this summer – or at least money that has translated to much in the way of playing time. Javi Gracia’s back four of Daryl Janmaat, Craig Cathcart, Christian Kabasele and José Holebas have been around Vicarage Road for multiple seasons. Cathcart was the only among them to not start at least 21 matches last season, but he’s been a consistent starter in the past. The midfielders playing in front of them were also consistently on the pitch for last season’s ups and downs. Rather, they turned a summer profit, highlighted by the sale of Richarlison.
That directs us to more specific numbers that could lead us to an objective understanding of a possible change in style, and we’ll look first at duels won. Last season, Watford averaged 40.5 duels won per match versus 42.3 for their opponents. 17.7 of the Hornets’ duels won came on the ground:
This campaign, as was visualised earlier, that’s up to 23.0 with an overall advantage of 46.3-42.8 over their opponents. Their ground duels won accounts for the highest average in the Premier League, and their total won is second.
So what does this look like in terms of playing style for Watford and their opponents? Let’s first consider the 2017/18 season:
Last season, Watford weren’t particularly defined stylistically as we see here with their percentages rarely deviating much away from the dotted line league average of 0 percent. Their opponents performed above league average most notably in transition at +15 percent in counter attack.
Now, this season through four matches:
There’s a negligible increase in high press for Watford from +9 percent to +11, but there’s a substantial increase in direct play with a dip in possession-based styles such as build up and fast tempo. They’re also crossing the ball less (19.3 crosses in play per match this season after 25.3 last) and playing with less possession overall (2017/18: 50 percent, 2018/19: 46 percent). Collectively, all of this could be contributing to the Hornets not getting caught up the pitch, and we see as a result their opponents are now countering at -25 percent of the league average.
Last season wasn’t short on counter-heavy performances from Watford opposition, such as the first 19 minutes of the second half of a 1-0 loss to Brighton & Hove Albion.
Edge’s Match Viewer allows us to watch a match in the context of any style of play and displays that style on a sliding timeline that allows us to jump to key moments. Below, the grey bars under the video show Brighton & Hove’s counter attacks in that 19-minute span, the red dots indicate shots, and the football signals a goal. We can see three instances in a scoreless game where Watford left themselves open to transition.
In the first, we’ll see Watford give the ball away in an advanced position allowing the Seagulls to break out with their best Napoli impression. In the second, an unremarkable cross is countered with a quick outlet by the opposing keeper, which ultimately leads to two shots. The third is a midfield giveaway leading to the match’s only goal:
Consider below the counter attack timeline for the 34 scoreless minutes to begin their season opener against that same opponent, Brighton & Hove. The Seagulls showed a comparatively sparse counter with no shots coming from it:
Four matches is of course a small sample size, and Manchester United could be the kind of side to draw those mistakes out of the Hornets. But for now, there’s a style here that seems to be working for Gracia. And it might be a bit more sustainable than last year’s strong start.