Perpetuated by the bright sunshine, a sea of yellow-shirted supporters drifted towards the Vicarage Road Stadium on Saturday morning, with beaming smiles. The slate had been wiped clean and the form guides were blank. This is often the most harmonious time to be a football supporter. It promised to be an eventful afternoon in Watford.
An increased presence of curiously-accented ticket touts and an abundance of half-and-half scarf-sellers indicated that one of the big teams were in town. This time – Liverpool. The last two encounters at Vicarage Road had spawned a goal of the season contender from Emre Can and, prior to that, a compelling 3-0 home victory. One thing was certain – the entertainment factor would be high, hence the presence of Jamie Carragher and Jamie Redknapp in the pundits studio for the televised fixture.
A surprising fact – the Hornets currently rank fourth in Premier League net spend. Just five years ago, the Hertfordshire club was facing financial doom. The disastrous reign of local businessman Lawrence Bassini took the club to the verge of ruin. Then the Pozzo family arrived. Despite a late season hiccup on the field, the club are going from strength to strength.
Some pundits tipped Watford for relegation, which in itself isn’t surprising for those with limited knowledge of the workings of owner Gino Pozzo. For the third consecutive season, some bookmakers agreed. Paul Merson triggered the ire of Watford fans with his prediction that Watford would be hopelessly relegated. Merson was dismissive of Silva when appointed as Hull manager. What the pundit holds against the Portuguese coach is unclear. The home fans expressed their anger with a chant of ‘Merson, what’s the score,’ led towards the former-Arsenal man. Every pantomime needs a villain.
The hosts’ side contained debutant Nathaniel Chalobah, alongside Abdoulaye Doucoure in defensive midfield. Younes Kaboul was a surprising inclusion, replacing the reliable Sebastian Prodl at the heart of defence. Etienne Capoue had to settle for a place on the bench, despite being a relatively strong performer at the beginning of the season. He was joined by new signings Richarlison and André Gray. The powerful but inconsistent Stefano Okaka started in place of captain Troy Deeney, who continues to recover from a groin injury.
Silva utilised the 4-2-3-1 formation which served Hull so well last season. The Portuguese has profited from an entire pre-season to implement his system. The preparation was there for all to see. The far more efficient approach of head coach speaking to his players directly was in stark contrast to his dialectally-challenged predecessor, Walter Mazzarri.
Watford Resilience and Vigour
In what Miguel Britos hailed as ‘a great atmosphere’, the Hornets played with a resilience and vigour that was missing from the tail end of last season. French midfielder Doucoure, arguably the man of the match, was effervescent in harrying the Liverpool attackers, which bore comparison to Klopp’s high-pressing policy. He ensured that little time was afforded to the dangerous Liverpool attacking trifecta. He also displayed a sensible range of passing alongside Nathaniel Chalobah. The two will be important in the upcoming months. Shockingly, Doucoure was an administrative paperwork-error away from the exit-door last season
A very inconsistent performer – Stefano ‘the Beast’ Okaka seems to enjoy playing against Merseyside teams at home. His man of the match performance in the win against Everton last season remains his most impressive showpiece to date. The burly frontman is usually a frustrating player to watch, but he dominated the Liverpool back-line and was commanding and dangerous in equal measure. His hold-up play was excellent throughout, and he opened the scoring with a header from a Jose Holebas corner. Interestingly, no defender has provided more Premier League assists since the start of last season than Holebas.
Sadio Mane’s superb finish levelled the scores. An intelligent move on the edge of the box, coupled with a clinical strike, exhibited the quality of the visitors. The fact that the Watford defence had bottled up Mane for 28 minutes prior to the goal was testament to the defensive work-rate of the home side.
The game was far from finished. There was a sense that there were more goals on offer. And so it proved, as the Hornets led again, through Doucoure’s neat finish. There was much to applaud at half-time as Watford led going into the break as the better side.
Five Devastating Second-Half Minutes
Roberto Pererya – Watford’s chief attacking protagonist was substituted after 49 minutes. This was the Argentine’s first game since December, following a knee injury and Watford’s second injury-related substitution of the day. It evidently took the wind out of the Hornets’ sails. His replacement was the debutant, Richarlison.
Jurgen Klopp’s team-talk was an effective one. Within 10 minutes of the restart, the Reds began to show their quality. They pinned Watford back with five devastating second-half minutes in which they could have put the tie beyond doubt. Another defensive lapse saw £36.9m man, Mohamed Salah, penetrate the opposition rear-guard. Captain for the day, Heurelho Gomes, hauled him down in the box. Roberto Firmino sent his compatriot, Gomes, the wrong way from the spot. The Reds were suddenly firing on all cylinders. Two minutes later Liverpool took the lead for the first time. Salah scored with a calculated lob. Nevertheless, the Egyptian was wasteful in the final third. Had he converted a greater proportion of his abundance of chances, Liverpool would have comfortably taken all three points back to the north-west.
The home side eventually managed to disrupt the Liverpool flow. Despite the time-wasting of Simon Mignolet (for which he was booked), there was an inevitability that Watford would get another chance. So it proved. New-boy Richarlison was the first to react to a sloppy corner, poking the ball towards the goal. Miguel Britos beat Mignolet to the ball, heading in from inches. While there were strong suggestions of offside, the situation should have been handled better by Liverpool. Nonetheless, the crowd erupted once more. Watford were able to hang-on for the point.
The manner of the draw meant that the point gained felt like three. It will have a galvanising effect on Watford, as they prepare to travel to Bournemouth on Saturday, a very different proposition. Once again, injuries disrupted the game-plan for the Hornets. The three goals conceded at home will be of concern for Marco Silva, although there were far more reasons for optimism.